Follow Us

Uncharted: The Greatest Video Game Movie Ever Made Falls Short of Greatness (Review)

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Uncharted is an adaptation of the Naughty Dog developed series of PlayStation games of the same name. They star an Indiana Jones style adventurer, recast from archeologist to honorable thief, named Nathan Drake. The games are iterations of the formula created by the Tomb Raider series (itself the recipient of three film adaptations thus far) with healthy chunks of the Assassin’s Creed series (only one film so far) thrown into the mix. All of these series derive quite directly from Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. It’s abundantly clear that an entire generation of game designers who came of age watching Raiders of the Lost Ark grew up to chase that same thrill in the interactive arts.

Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Impossible) takes on the role of Nathan Drake. Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, Deepwater Horizon) plays Sully, a mentor and quasi-antagonist figure in Drake’s life. Together the mismatched buddies two go off on a globe-trotting adventure to find the treasure of Magellan before villains Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory, The Mask of Zorro) and Tati Gabrielle (Netflix’s You) can discover it. The film feels suitably epic in its globe trotting. From the tombs of churches in Barcelona to the jungles of the Philippines, it all feels well crafted and impressively composed avoiding the cheap sound stage feel of something like Red Notice.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

My biggest problem with the film is the casting of Tom Holland in the lead role: he feels like a little boy. The very thing that makes him the pitch perfect Peter Parker makes him an awkward Nathan Drake. On a base character level, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that a 25 year old NYC bartender with a passion for in-home CrossFit and the mixologist acumen of Tom Cruise in Cocktail would have a secret font of archaic expertise that would make the average college history professor green with envy. Perhaps a childhood interest in, ahem, raiding tombs like frenemy treasure hunter Chloe Frazer (an effective Sophia Ali, Truth Or Dare) would make it more sensible. Instead, we have a kid with the knowledge of a man and it feels unearned. Between his height and his babyface, Holland is going to look like a college kid well into his 30s. It creates a strange cognitive dissonance to see an actor we best know for playing a high school student just a few months ago wielding guns and drinking pirate rum. It’s a problem that the script exacerbates by leaning into awkward running jokes about chewing gum and Holland’s youthful appearance, height, and inexperience.

Holland’s performance doesn’t play as some sort of preternaturally wise fellow either. He’s goofy and utterly devoid of street smarts – a child pretending to be an adult. He can flip around cocktail shakers, but evidently has no idea how to drink wine. This Nathan Drake panics at the site of a dead body and seems entirely uninterested in the pretty girl in a bathrobe sitting against him on a hotel couch. I think Holland is a wonderful actor, and a charming leading man, but his Peter Parker is aggressively asexual and that “safe” feeling carries over to his Nathan Drake. He seems stuck playing the boy every father hopes his daughter brings home… but not the boy any daughter actually wants to date.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

The film even shifts Drake’s relationship with his brother from the games in a way that seems intended to shoehorn the character into more Peter Parker-esque territory. In the game Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Nate is tortured for years by the idea that he may have unwittingly caused his brother’s death. When he finds out his brother is alive the guilt is compounded by the knowledge that his brother spent that time in a brutal prison and Nate inadvertently left him there. The film version of Nathan Drake sees his older brother run away from their orphanage school at a young age only to break his promise to come back. This is not a Nathan Drake who carries the scars of regret, merely an extra set of emotional buttons to let Holland do his signature (and genuinely affecting) weepy work.

I certainly don’t think adaptations need to be precisely accurate. Nearly every Marvel movie sees significant alterations to canon, but they work because of a core commitment to getting the essence of the main character right. It’s not bloodlust that makes me long for a Nathan Drake comfortable around death, it’s a hard edge that helps give texture to the video game character’s appeal. I don’t need a male character to chase skirts to make him appealing, but the Nathan Drake of the games is sometimes driven to folly by his more basal impulses. It seems to me the makers of Uncharted care more about making a four quadrants appealing hero than capturing the essence of the Nathan Drake character. To be fair, that essence is essentially Indiana Jones as a video game character. Nevertheless, I remain convinced there’s a market for new spins on that archetype that don’t need to be stricken by the comic book era asexuality of mainstream movie characters

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Perhaps Tom Holland’s particular brand of “aww shucks” action heroism overpowered the script and any preconceptions of what Drake should be on set. And here’s the thing, he’s undeniably charming! It’s clear he’s actually doing an impressive amount of his own parkour stunt work. He seems engaged and committed to the material. He has pleasant odd couple chemistry with Wahlberg and remains effortlessly funny. Maybe director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Venom) pivoted during filming and this is what came out of the edit. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel disappointed that a compelling game character has been brought to life with all the edge of a network TV character from the 50s.

Sometimes writing about a film is a journey. When I sat down to write about Uncharted, I thought I’d have written far more more positively, but the process ended up drawing out a lot more frustrations than I had expected. I worry I have given the wrong impression. I actually had a really good time at Uncharted. I laughed at most of the jokes. I found the adventure compelling. I liked the entire cast. The production values are largely quite solid. I had a goofy grin on my face during the utterly absurd finale. The movie is, put simply, a good hang! I’m just sad that when I call Uncharted the greatest video game movie ever made it’s with the knowledge that it could have been so much more.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Uncharted will be released in theaters on February 18, 2022.