On December 21, 2015, Sony and Naughty Dog released a short advertisement in preparation for the upcoming debut of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, clocking in at just over thirty seconds. The slow-motion spot features the game’s intrepid protagonist lunging forward toward a flipping gold coin just beyond his reach, begging to be caught. As the scene around him erupts into chaos, a voice-over beings. “Nathan Drake. That two-bit thief, risking it all for some piece of treasure.” As the camera continues to pan, however, we see that the floor of this ancient, loot-filled room has begun to collapse, and Nate’s brother Sam is falling through it. “I guess that’s how they know me, how they’ll remember me.” With this comes the big reveal; Nate was never reaching for the coin. He only wants to save his brother, a choice he’s made time and time again. “But that’s not who I am.”
These thirty seconds are the epitome of the Uncharted franchise. A hero who must choose between honor and glory, lost ancient treasure, massive set pieces filled with pulse-pounding action, and a surprising amount of heart woven between the seams of it all. The games have had such an impact on fans because of their ability to engage the player in Drake’s adventures, on both an emotional and intellectual level. They are cinematic escapades you can take part in, with every aforementioned characteristic merging together to create a fully-formed, well-rounded experience. Drama flows into excitement, which in turn becomes triumph. Even the worst of the video game installments managed to tap this narrative oil well, and reap the rewards that come with competent storytelling. That advertisement, titled Man Behind the Treasure, was able to encompass all of this in a mere half-minute runtime. So why, with a $120 million budget and multiple years worth of creative turnovers and rewrites, was Ruben Fleischer‘s film adaptation not able to do it in two hours?
The answer is simple. Uncharted, the long-awaited movie, does not understand why people loved the franchise in the first place. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t understand how to execute the game’s ideas in a way that means anything. To be honest, it’s not the worst adventure film that’s ever been made. It’s no National Treasure, and it certainly pales in comparison to the great Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s not unwatchable. It offers a few charming moments from a cast with decent chemistry, and it’s sporadic set pieces are exhilarating enough. Tom Holland actually makes for a pretty charming Nate, and newcomer Sophia Ali makes a case for herself as the dynamic Chloe Frazer. Mark Wahlberg is horribly miscast as Sully, but he bounces off the younger cast well enough to keep his presence entertaining. Antonio Banderas and Tati Gabrielle, especially Tati Gabrielle, are able to keep the danger alive as actually-pretty-good villains. If this were a review for a generic action flick, it may even be getting higher marks. Unfortunately, it carries the Uncharted name on it’s title card, which makes it’s status as serviceably generic all the more depressing.
The main problems with the film stem from two conflicting arguments. Firstly, and most importantly, the movie seems to adapt all the wrong parts of it’s namesake. Uncharted seems to think that all audiences wanted translated from console to cinema was the franchise’s signature flair. Blanketed over the one-note plotline are dressings designed to make viewers go, “oh, they did the Uncharted thing!” There are live-action recreations of iconic moments, plenty of witty comments, several rants about global history, double-crossing, a plethora of “craps”, knowing cameos, and even a bar named ‘Kitty Got Wet’ (if you know, you know). Nate’s relationship with his long-lost brother Sam is the crux of the film, which attempts to paint the protagonist in the same big-hearted light as the games, even if it fails to add the same intrigue. It’s mostly all there. Yet, somehow, every bit of it feels so passionless. The heart that strings all the charm together is simply not there. It’s like Sony, and it does feel like Sony directed this movie themselves, had all the tools necessary to create a complex mosaic, but opted instead to pump out a paint-by-the-numbers and hope nobody noticed. Sure, the final image looks like Uncharted, but it just doesn’t have the same soul.
When it does do Uncharted things, it doesn’t even commit to them hard enough for it to matter. Aside from an admittedly solid final sequence, most of the small things that compliment the series’ larger attributes find themselves replaced by forgettable, cheaper alternatives. The movie borrows an entire scene directly from Uncharted 4, but sets it in the middle of urban New York City as opposed to it’s original Italian countryside. Where the games’ scores are known for using slightly more exotic compositions, the film waits until the very end to do anything unique or exciting with it’s music. Until that point, the soundtrack might as well have been playing over literally any other action film released in the past ten years. Ultimately, fans are probably better off just staying home and replaying their favorite sequences on whichever PlayStation they may possess. And if anyone unfamiliar with Uncharted watched the movie, liked it, and came here hoping for validation, they’d only find a recommendation to, well – just play the games instead. They feel, and look, more like a big-budget film anyway.