Uncharted Movie Review
Contributed by DJMMT
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a special private IMAX screening of Uncharted here in Taiwan, just two days before the official release. Before getting into the nuances of the film, I’d like to start off by saying that I think this was one of the best video game adaptation films I’ve ever seen. I hate to use blanket statements like “the best ever made” but honestly Uncharted might be the best video game movie ever made from a general film making standpoint that also respects the game franchise it’s based on and the fans who actually played the games before watching the movie.
When adapting any work, the goal isn’t to perfectly recreate the work exactly as it is in its original medium. At that point, there’s not really a point in creating the adaptation. The goal is to capture the tone and style of the original work while effectively translating it to a different medium. Uncharted is a successful film because it manages to do that almost perfectly. It is not a perfect film. But it perfectly captures the tone and style of the Uncharted games while not being a bad movie. That, more than anything else, is what makes it a good game movie. This is best expressed in how the movie ends, which I won’t spoil, but it was as if it came right out of the games. I genuinely can’t think of a better way to have ended that film that fully captures the spirit of the game series.
The movie, being an origin story, also takes advantage of the games’ iconic objects and weaves them into the story as a nod to fans of the games. For instance, Drake’s shoulder belt holster. Even though it was shown in the ads and on set photos in the marketing for the film, he doesn’t actually get that until nearly the end of the movie. But the moment when he gets it is very well done. It’s a culmination of his experiences up to that point and a visual statement that this is the real Nathan Drake. No longer the poor kid just trying to survive as a bartender, this is the Nathan Drake that went on to have multiple epic adventures as seen in the games.
Uncharted has the benefit of being originally inspired by movies like the Indiana Jones franchise. The original storytelling model for the games comes from movies. And there are so many movies they could look at when crafting this one. Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, National Treasure and countless other archaeologist historian treasure hunting films already exist, making it easy to find good examples and blueprints for how to translate this story into a movie. It also helps that the Uncharted series is already a highly cinematic experience.
From a general film making standpoint, this was a solid origin story. A young, Peter Parker inspired history nerd with a sad backstory that led him to a life of petty criminal activities for survival and dreams of finding riches and family to replace the happy life that was stolen from him at a young age. These moments from Drake’s youth are pulled almost directly from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Really that’s how much of the movie operates. They went through all four of the main title games and cherrypicked famous moments to craft a single origin story. The treasure in the movie is also pulled almost directly from one of the games. I won’t spoil which one. I think this approach worked here, because the types of treasure and the path to acquire them in the Uncharted series works very well for a movie. I would not say that would work for every type of game to movie adaptation though.
The relationships between the characters are consistent with the games as well. The major issue with this comes from the fact that this is an origin story. So these relationships seem a bit too heavy handed considering all these people only just met Nathan Drake. The movie tries to get around this by focusing on Sully and Sam Drake. Yet Sam Drake isn’t actually in the movie proper. He’s only featured in flashbacks and references from other characters. So you have a collection of people, some of which are from the games, interacting with a greenhorn treasure hunter and treating him like a threat he hasn’t proven himself to be, simply because he’s working with Sully and related to someone he hasn’t seen since he was kid. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it feels unearned.
The character dynamics at play make it seem like everyone in this business is a real asshole that just uses everyone else, which is not inaccurate to how the games work. The difference is that the games take place several years into Drake’s career as a treasure hunter. So characters like Chloe, when introduced in the games, already don’t trust Nathan and Sully, because she’s worked with them before and knows they can and most likely will try to double cross her. But she doesn’t have this experience with Nathan in the movie. Yet she treats him like she knows he can’t be trusted, simply because of his affiliation to Sully. The problem with this is that she’s much younger in this too.
According to the wiki, Chloe is only three years older than Drake. In the movie, Drake is probably about 23 years old. Meaning Chloe is only 26. Depending on what age she got into the game, it’s very unlikely that she’s already had enough experiences to have become as cynical about everyone else as she seems in the movie. In the games, where she’s already in her mid-30’s when first introduced, this makes perfect sense. But here, it seems like all these people are acting much older than they actually should be and are treating Nathan like they already know him much better than they actually do. The justification in the dialog always comes back to “you can’t trust anyone in the treasure hunting game,” but that feels very lazy.
In general, I did have issue with some of the casting choices. I didn’t feel like anyone gave a bad performance. But I think that a number of these actors were chosen based on their names rather than their fit for these specific roles. This feels especially true for Holland and Wahlberg. The two have great on-screen chemistry, but it doesn’t feel like Drake and Sully. It feels like a dude pretending to be from New York and an older mentor from Boston. I also feel like they did Sully dirty in the action of the story. Sully rarely gets his hands directly dirty in the games, because he’s older. His character was always presented as nearing retirement but still playing the game, because Nathan Drake is like a son to him and he never stopped trying to get that big score. In the movie, he just feels like a user. Even though he's much younger and still deep in the game, he doesn’t get his hands dirty that often, simply because he’s using other people to do it for him. Rather than be an older player who aged past the action, they’re acting like he’s playing 4D chess and using Drake, among others, to do the dirty work for him. I didn’t like that presentation of a young Sully. To me, he always came off like Indiana Jones in the twilight of his adventuring career. With Drake being Indiana Jones in his prime.
One thing I think it’s important to note is that since I watched the movie in Taiwan, the subtitles were in Chinese. There is about two minutes of footage concerning dialog between one of the villains and his father in Spanish. It’s subtitled, but in my case the subtitles were in Mandarin, which I read even worse than I speak Spanish. I don’t think this made me unable to understand the film, but it did affect my ability to fully understand one of the major antagonist’s personal motivations. Especially given what happens at the end of that scene.
Overall, Uncharted is a fun movie. I’m glad I got to watch it in theater, but I absolutely don’t think it needs to be viewed in IMAX. It’s very similar to the experience of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). If you felt like that was worth seeing in theater, then this movie definitely is as well. I give Uncharted a general film score of a soft 7 and a game movie adaptation score of a 9.