You can live a perfectly happy, productive and fulfilled life without playing video games. But for many who did look for their extra portion of satisfaction in that medium, the video game Uncharted have been a not insignificant source of salvation. The five games, all released on Sony’s PlayStation consoles, put the player in the shoes of Nathan Drake, a distant descendant of pirate Sir Francis Drake and pretty much the millennial version of cinema hero Indiana Jones. A treasure hunter who travels the world in search of lost artifacts from antiquity and, with luck, the fortunes his finds are worth.
In the video game Uncharted, he went after the sunken fleet of Marco Polo, the lost oasis Iram of a thousand pillars and the gold treasure of pirate Henry Avery. The journeys were always at the risk of their own lives, because other parties – invariably equipped with an army of heavily armed mercenaries – preyed on the same discoveries. The strongholds he visited also made his life miserable with riddles and booby traps.
Easily Digital “Quatsch”
For gamers, the figure of Drake was immortalized by actor Nolan North, but he was too unknown to the general public to show up for the long-awaited and almost inevitable film adaptation. For this, Tom Holland, known as Spider-Man, among other things, was recruited, who, as a younger Nathan Drake, hunts for the long-lost gold of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Add to that other Hollywood stars like Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas, and the action-packed director Ruben Fleischer (of Zombieland, Gangster Squad and Venom), and on paper all the boxes seem neatly ticked.
On the cinema screen, however, Uncharted does not get any further than a completely silly, easily digestible chunk of quatsch. With a nice find here and there (that trip through the catacombs in Barcelona, for example, had a charmingly unexpected denouement) but also a lot of hits in the water. Like the poorly cast Wahlberg, who has too boyish an actor persona to pass as a growling veteran who takes the young fortune hunter in tow. Or that one character that was very easily removed from the screenplay when it was no longer needed for the plot.
Structural Curse Based on Video Game Uncharted
Actually, we should have known, because there seems to be a curse on cinema films based on a video game. From Super Mario Bros. (1993) across Street Fighter (1994), Tomb Raider (2001), Hitman (2007) and Warcraft (2016) to Sonic the Hedgehog (2020): never has a movie-to-the-game been more than passable turn on a cinema screen. Usually this is simply due to the quality of the production, or the director’s inability or disinterest to understand how the games are put together.
Fleischer just can’t be blamed for that. Still, his Uncharted fails to break the curse once again, as the creative crew behind the film struggled to deal with a few seemingly insurmountable differences between the two mediums.
The first is in the narration. Holland, not poor in screen presence for his 26 years, puts on a well-crafted hero, but the film’s running time is about a fifth of the time players spend with the figure in each of the games. Remember that video games are a “long storytelling medium” like TV series; the complexity that the character gains after a dozen hours of gaming on the PlayStation is nowhere to be seen in its movie equivalent. His motives to push himself to the limit in his globetrotting adventure remain virtually unknown.
Much more important than that: Uncharted is too difficult to break free from the conventions that underpin the games. Video games have a much looser connection to physical reality than movies. The Nathan Drake from the video game Uncharted could narrowly jump from a moving jeep into a cargo plane taking off, mow down all the mercenaries on board with his pistols, jump out of the then crashing rig, get lost in the desert for a day, exhausted and parched, and find a settlement, and then start firing happily again, as if his body hadn’t been through all the reserves ten minutes ago. That kind of joke works in video games, not on a movie screen, but Fleischer does try. Both a supporting sequence halfway through the film and the crazy apotheosis are so crazy, such a copy-paste of scenes from the games that they make an otherwise solid adventure film lose all credibility.
Conversely, it has worked a few times. The better video games based on well-known stories in film or another medium, such as GoldenEye 007 (1997), the Batman: Arkham games (2009 onwards) and Alien: Isolation (2014), successfully wriggled free from their source material because the creators had deconstructed the latter and then applied the conventions of their own medium to it. It remains to wait for a filmmaker who can do the same.