Uncharted (2022) Review: Really Good for a Videogame, Medium as a Film

by Eric Gressman

(Minor Spoilers)

PlayStation Production’s very first film is Uncharted. Based on Naughty Dog studio’s video game franchise of the same name, Uncharted has landed in UK cinemas a week ahead of the US release. This timing is not coincidental. The fact that many of the nations’ schools will be on half-term break the same week was surely not overlooked. The producers knew what they had: the in-built audience from Naughty Dog’s massively successful video games, a Tom Holland fresh off Spider-Man: No Way Home and cranked to maximum teenage heartthrob, and very few charms for anyone over 18. When they know these things, they know they need the students of the UK in those theatres.

The story follows Nathan Drake on an epic intercontinental hunt for Magellan’s secret gold stash, plundered while under the cover of his trip around the world. We learn that Nate has been given a passion for finding the treasure, as well as a working knowledge of high-end thievery, by his older brother, Sam, right before Sam becomes long-lost Sam. Then, while working as a history-buff buff-bartender, Nate is approached by Victor “Sully” Sullivan, played buffly by Mark Wahlberg. With the lure of a golden crucifix-key that leads to Magellan’s treasure, along with a few hints about the whereabouts of long-lost Sam, Nate joins Sully’s search for the lost gold, despite his aggressive red flags. What ensues is really pretty good. For a video game.

The Uncharted game franchise is one known for setting the bar (with God of War) in cinematic game experiences. As a playable character, Nathan Drake has always just allowed you to do more in the game. Where other games might always switch to a pre-rendered cutscene, Naughty Dog has tried to keep the control in your hands wherever possible. That means you swing more, and get dragged more, and fall a lot more. You feel it more, in other words. On top of that, the writing of the franchise has always leaned heavily into the flow of natural conversation and prided itself on having actors who could execute it.

The film clearly wants to have the same things and deliver something as close to the game as possible while still being distinctly a theatre experience. I think that is the main thrust of my issues with it. Uncharted is quite true to its inspiration, but when the games are being their most cinematic, they make you say, “Wow! This is almost like a movie!”

But when it actually does get translated to the big screen, the bar for entertainment is raised a lot higher than just “almost like a movie”.

I’m not so sure the writers got this message, though. The logic of the film remains at video game level much of the time. Despite a huge emotional info-dump at the outset, the stakes remain strangely low throughout. Personal conflicts are introduced and immediately resolved between action set pieces, and then some of the set pieces themselves aren’t as visually spectacular as they would be fun to play. The city that Nate bartends in seems to go unnamed. The lives of Nate, Sully, and Chloe (Grey’s Anatomy’s Sophia Ali) are tossed around like they really do have infinite lives. As the action ramps up to levels that boast even the video games, the team avoids harrowing deaths and complete amazing physical feats, but the absurdity of it all goes mostly unremarked upon. It almost feels like a perfect, glitch-free, 0-deaths, 0-damage-taken run of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

It’s understandable, of course. The script has all the bruises of too many punch-ups by too many writers. The tone often jars in a noted-to-death kind of way. It seems clear that a board room wanted to have the effortless adventure of National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, but also some emotional weight, and the in-touch winking laughs of Holland’s Spider-Man. The result falls short of both, inoffensive and lumpy. It has the chastity of the MCU but also a weird amount of boozing. One scene in a Barcelonian church promises Indiana Jones intrigue, then makes fun of itself when the end of the road is bombastic product placement. Perhaps a comedian got the script, read it, then wrote their own exasperation at the plot into it?

It’s not all bad, though. It’s kind of flat, like it was meant to watch over a week, for 40 minutes at a time after your homework is done, but it’s not boring. Fans of the franchise will recognize plenty of action sequences and story beats that have been lifted directly from the games, and there are a good handful of easter eggs, including a cameo from in-game Nate Drake actor, Nolan North. Collisions are big, and hit hard in a satisfying way. In general, the action doesn’t take itself too seriously while still being exciting, and the climax might be the most ridiculous swashbuckling you see this year. The acting is quite strong throughout. Tom Holland does tons of work delivering personality and depth to carry the plot forwards, while his hair stays coiffed in a way that it looks like his first and last name might be Cody. Tati Gabrielle as mercenary Jo Braddock serves stunningly dressed half-Korean Xenia Onatopp. An extra-gravelly Antonio Banderas shows up, knows exactly what movie he’s in, then exits the movie without even a ripple in the plot. We even get some flustered, high-pitched Mark Wahlberg, which I think is everyone’s favourite Mark.

Naughty Dog seemed to be taking their first two forays into screen quite seriously, and I admit I went into the film perhaps expecting too much. If you’re a fan of the games, and you go into Uncharted just wanting to see the game come to life, the teenager in you won’t leave disappointed. However, if your inner tween is dead, and you’re old enough to legally get a Stranger Things tattoo, I’d say you should pass on both.

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