This post contains major spoilers for the Uncharted movie. If you still want to be surprised, come back to this one later!
Strap in folks, this one’s a doozy
I like to consider myself a pretty devout Uncharted fan. I’ve played all of the games, some of them multiple times, and I even worked at Naughty Dog for a hot minute there. When I heard there was going to be a movie based on the series, though, I was skeptical. Part of that is the usual skepticism that comes along with video game movies, but then there’s also the fact that Uncharted are some of the most movie-like games out there. Why would they need to make them into actual movies? Certainly it’s because they have their own fresh take to put on it.
That’s what I was thinking… at least until I saw who they cast as Nate and Sully. Look, I’m all for giving everyone a chance to prove themselves, but I was unsure of those choices from the get-go. Even if we were going for an aged-down origin story take, sure, that’s something I can get behind in theory.
Honestly, the cast was one of the most egregious things about this movie. I think the issue was that everyone just made boring choices. They were saying the lines, but there was no flavor, you know what I mean? It wasn’t giving me anything, let alone getting close to capturing the essence of these characters, who are larger than life in the games.
Sure, Tom Holland is an action hero type, but he’s lacking a certain maturity that’s innate to Nathan Drake. If he’s supposed to be younger, that’s fine, but he still didn’t have that charisma that we’re used to from Nate. There are moments in there where the writing is capturing Nate, for sure, but Tom’s delivery was a bit too flat for me to make it work. I’m sorry Tommy, I love you as Spider-Man, but this one’s a no from me.
Sully was also lacking his usual charms. Mark Wahlberg is still the worst casting choice for reasons already stated, but he also just spoke in his normal Marky Mark voice. There was no zest, no flavor in his voice, which is a letdown from the booming presence that Sully’s gravelly voice has in the games. That’s not to say that Mark Wahlberg couldn’t have ever worked as Sully, but his white bread acting choices certainly didn’t help.
We do get to see a credits sequence where Sully gets a mustache, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why they didn’t give him one in the movie. It makes him look so much more like the character, and they even could have written a funny quip about why he chose to grow it. Seems like a real waste of an opportunity to me.
Side note: seeing Sully’s arc reduced to “gold or friend” was honestly so laughable to me. He’s one of my favorite characters of the games — he obviously cares about the treasure, but he also has a heart of gold and we can really tell how much he cares for the people in his life. He is more than a greedy loner who just wants gold! Justice for Sully!
Chloe wasn’t my favorite either. In the games, she’s so charismatic and mysterious. In this movie, well, she’s just as boring as everyone else. I also don’t understand why they changed her backstory when the one in the game is so much cooler.
What is Uncharted really about? Friendship.
The single worst thing about the Uncharted movie to me, though, is that it misses the one quintessential piece of what makes Uncharted what it is — it’s not the treasure, but the camaraderie. To me, Uncharted is just as much about people as it is about swashbuckling adventure. All anyone in this movie seems to talk about is how you can’t trust anyone because they’ll turn their back on you.
Then they all betray each other and it’s like, yeah no shit, that’s all you’ve talked about. Why not show me how these characters come to trust each other and become real friends, but then when the betrayals happen they actually feel like they hold some weight? Not only does the constant (and I mean constant) contention make the twists visible from a mile away, but it also doesn’t evolve to reveal anything new to us about the characters, or help capture the spirit of “the real treasure is the friends we made along the way” vibe that Uncharted always nails.
Who is Nathan Drake?
Take Nate’s character, for example. Sure, he wants the treasure because he wants to be rich — who wouldn’t? But more than that, he grew up in a broken family, and more than anything, he wants to feel like he’s a part of something greater than himself. That’s why he and his brother hold so tightly to this idea of being descendants of Sir Francis Drake. It ties them to a family that has done great things, something they always wished they could have. Sic parvis magna, remember?
This idea is core to Nate’s character — it’s why he’s so proficient in treasure hunting in the first place, having studied it his whole life. It’s why when the wonders that he finds are destroyed so that they will never be able to show anyone (and monetize off of it), he brushes it off, because he loves the thrill of finding it in the first place. It’s why he is always willing to chase what he’s after to the point that it might even hurt the people he loves, which was explored at length in the story of Uncharted 4.
Naughty Dog did a great job of fleshing out Nate’s character over the course of the game series to be more than just a bland treasure-hunting dude, and it’s what made the series shine brightest. That’s why I was so disappointed to see any similar characterization missing from the film, even in short. We get the setup that Nate and his brother think they’re Drakes, which explains their fascination with history, but that’s about all we get.
It’s also missing the implication that this is entirely untrue, which is what gives that idea its depth in the first place. If these characters are willing to convince themselves of an untrue lineage to connect to a feeling of greatness and a family to be proud of, that tells us a lot about who they are and the choices they make. If it’s just another fact spit out at us, it’s just exposition and nothing more.
Another small but incredibly important gripe I have is about the accents. Sam’s Boston accent was nowhere to be found, and that’s a huge problem for me and my roommate. It’s fun, it’s kind of his thing, and not having it that was a huge bummer. Chloe’s accent was… not good at all. She’s played by Sophia Taylor Ali, an American actress, and while she looked a great deal like Chloe (or a younger version of her), I could not distinguish what kind of accent she was going for. It changed every other line, and there were times that I couldn’t even understand what she was saying.
The most enjoyable parts of the Uncharted movie for me were the action and puzzle sequences, for sure. There would be moments where they step away from the lousy character stuff and just focus on treasure hunting, and those were such a blast. I’m already a huge fan of this genre, so they already had me going in, but I have to admit that seeing the characters use artifacts to follow clues to solve puzzles felt more like the games than any other parts of the movie.
We get nods all the way through the film to iconic moments from the game, like the cargo plane set piece from Uncharted 3 that we saw in the trailers. There’s Chloe’s introduction and a bar scene like Uncharted 2, but it pulls most heavily from Uncharted 4 with Sam, an auction scene, and the pirate ships.
It was cool to see how the Uncharted movie took on some of our favorite moments from the course of the series, but with all the referencing, it often just made me wish I was playing the games instead. It’s evoking these moments from the games that, for the most part, feel really strong in their respective contexts. When you pull them out of that format and just throw them into a blender with other vaguely Uncharted elements, they don’t quite have that same punch behind them. I think they would have been much better off either picking one game and adapting that, or just making an entirely original plot and going from there.
There was one sequence in the movie that I thought was spectacular, aside from the fact that it was the biggest set piece of the whole run. The climactic scene features two giant pirate ships that are helicoptered out of a cave, and then all of the characters have to fight each other on these giant flying ships.
This was really the only moment in the movie where I looked at it and went, “that’s SO Uncharted!” It’s something I would expect to see in one of the games, but it was an entirely original set piece for the movie that had just the right amount of ridiculousness to make it feel really fun. Unfortunately it’s the only time where I felt like they took the inspiration of the games and iterated on it, giving us something original and fun, but at least I was able to enjoy it as it was happening.
Fun in a bad way
Overall, the Uncharted movie wasn’t the best experience. Any scene where the characters were talking had me saying “I hate it,” but then we’d jump to an action scene and I’d be having a great time. It was a “so bad it’s good” movie until a brief, shining moment that I was actually able to enjoy it unironically, before it would revert back to blandness. This is definitely something I would only want to watch on the big screen, so I recommend it if you can do so safely. I’d see it again too, but only if I was drunk, you know what I mean?
The thing is, as much as I kind of hate this movie for missing some of the most important parts of its namesake, I had a really fun time watching it. I had to go in with an “it’s so bad it’s good” mentality, and in that sense, I was having a blast. Then, a moment would come out of nowhere and be genuinely enjoyable, and I was able to drop the irony for just a second.
So we’re obviously getting a series out of this — Sony has said as much. Knowing me I’ll probably go and see the second one in spite of my mostly negative feelings. That line of reasoning is likely why the movie is doing as well as it is in the first place. In my heart of hearts, I’m an Uncharted fangirl, which means I probably liked it more than someone who doesn’t care about the games would. Sadly, Uncharted is yet another in a long line of disappointing video game movies, and the only thing that carries it are those moments that remind us of the moments we love from the games.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.