Uncharted is one of those video game franchises that wows you to no end. As adventurer Nathan Drake, the player traverses the globe exploring all different environments, most of which become the settings for some of the most epic, jaw-dropping action set pieces imaginable. And you’re in the middle of the action, as the player, hanging on for dear life.
In the film version, directed by Ruben Fleischer and hitting theatres on Thursday, that general idea is present. Nathan Drake, played by Tom Holland, is still an explorer travelling the world. He’s getting into impossible situations and the film aims to give its audience unforgettable action set pieces with an emotional connection needed to give them drama and stakes. However, during its roughly two hour runtime, it never quite finds the balance a game can in five or six times that. And what happens when there’s no balance? You fall flat.
The problems begin almost right from the start as Uncharted cold opens in the middle of one of its two epic action sequences. Nathan Drake wakes up in midair, stuck in a cargo netting falling from the sky. He fights his way back up and before you know it, it’s 15 years earlier. Drake, now 10 years old (and played by Tiernan Jones) and his older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) are getting into trouble at a Boston boarding school and Sam decides to split, leaving Nathan behind. The story then jumps back to the present where Nathan, living in New York City and making his way as a bartender and pickpocket, is asked by James “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a man who was friends with Sam in the 15 years he’s been gone, to help him finish what he and Sam started.
Truly, there’s almost no better microcosm for Uncharted’s fatal flaws. A big action scene goes right into a scene meant to deepen the characters, which is a little too rushed, and then the plot of the movie runs in, a little too conveniently. It’s a pattern that continues throughout, but is at least bolstered by a frequently funny back and forth repartee between Nathan and Sully. Their goal is to find $US5 ($7) billion worth of gold the explorer Magellen hid centuries ago, which will require them to have two special keys, a map, solve a bunch of riddles, etc. Also on the case is rich guy Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) who believes he has a birthright to the treasure and has hired a vicious mercenary named Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) to help him get it.
And so Nathan and Sully, with the help of the mysterious Chloe (Sophia Ali), go after the treasure while battling Moncada and Braddock. Which, on the surface, sounds great — if only it gave us those big Uncharted action scenes held together with some meaningful emotion. Instead we get two set pieces total, the one that we see for no reason at the beginning on the plane and at the very end with giant, flying pirate ships. (Both of which I’m OK spoiling because each feature prominently in the trailers, as does the movie’s mid-credits scene — in case you were wondering just how little Uncharted cares about big surprises.) In between there are other action sequences, but most are very familiar: shooting, punching, solving clues like something out of The Goonies, pretty standard.
As for that emotion, huge chunks of what might have made the characters more interesting are mentioned then thrown away, almost like writers Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway knew these things were crucial but weren’t able to give them enough time to develop. We learn early on that Nathan and Sam lost their parents, but how and why never comes back. We know both brothers are interested in history and exploration, but after Sam leaves it isn’t explained what or why Nathan is doing living in New York as a bartender. Once Sully and Chloe are introduced, the main thing they all bond over is not trusting each other, which leads to some clever double crosses, but a real lack of faith in them as humans. So basically we’re just watching people we don’t really know, but have heard a little bit about, running around being bad to each other.
Which sounds awful. And while it’s not good, it’s surprisingly watchable thanks to the performances of the actors. Tom Holland is just plain charismatic as Nathan Drake. Even though the character as written doesn’t have much depth, Holland’s charming, loveable demeanour makes it not just work, it makes it fun. Add to that his banter with Wahlberg’s Sully, and even when the movie isn’t going anywhere, it’s enjoyable to see them going back and forth time and time again.
The other standout is Tati Gabrielle as Moncada’s gun for hire, Braddock. Best known for playing Gaia on The 100, she’s terrifying in a way that you’d almost like to see her win because she’s that damned cool. It’s probably because the film doesn’t care about her backstory, only making her look wildly awesome, that she comes off that way. She’s a star in the making.
And, I have to admit, those two big Uncharted set pieces are damned near worth the prices of admission on their own. They could have been more rousing if the movie was more concerned with its characters — but even so, they’re about as close to the excitement of playing Uncharted as you can imagine seeing on screen. However, in comparison to the rest of the film, they feel so out of place that it almost makes you wish they weren’t in there. Almost.
If you sit down to watch Uncharted, you won’t hate yourself for doing so. The plane and pirate ship scenes are exhilarating to watch, Holland is super charming, his banter with Wahlberg is humorous, and Gabrielle’s Braddock is a showstopper. But all of that feels less carefully constructed and more thrown together with the hope that a name brand will tie it all together. It does not, a fact that becomes abundantly clear during the film’s credits. Then, and only then, is when the very recognisable, very awesome musical theme to the Uncharted games by Greg Edmonson is played. There is sits. Catchy, emotional, and a total afterthought, like so much of the movie before it.
Uncharted is out tomorrow, February 17. If you’re now gonna give it a miss, why not check out all the other sci-fi, horror and fantasy films releasing in Australia this year.