The Never-Ending Quest to Make a Great Video-Game Movie

Uncharted, starring Tom Holland, is a disappointingly derivative adaptation of a franchise that was already intentionally derivative.

Tom Holland and Sophia Ali crouching at a tunnel entrance in "Uncharted"
Clay Enos / Sony Pictures

Play just a few minutes of any Uncharted video game, and the basic concept becomes clear: What if you could be the main character in a blockbuster action-adventure film? Embodied by the dashing treasure hunter Nathan Drake, the player leaps from boulder to boulder, explores ancient ruins, and exchanges gunfire with evil mercenaries in a modern update on Indiana Jones. The series is so obviously indebted to the storytelling rhythms of movies that, about a year after the game’s 2007 release, work on a film adaptation began. But how to keep the project from feeling like a copy of a copy, a derivation of something that was already loudly, intentionally derivative?

Well, after waiting more than a decade for the film’s development and keeping watch on its changing roster of high-profile directors and stars, we still don’t have an answer. Uncharted, directed by Ruben Fleischer and starring Tom Holland as Nathan, is a depressingly routine affair that fails to replicate the joys of its source material. When playing a video game, you can easily perceive the bindings of the world you’re within, the invisible rails guiding the player along the journey that’s been scripted for them. In the past few years, video-game-to-film adaptations such as Sonic the Hedgehog have tried and failed to translate that bird’s-eye view into a climactic story. The film version of Uncharted feels even more limited than its predecessors, plodding between a few familiar-looking locales and vainly searching for the vaguest of narrative stakes.

Antonio Banderas holding a map in "Uncharted"
Clay Enos / Sony Pictures

The movie’s most fundamental error came before the cameras even started rolling: Holland is a bizarre casting choice as Nathan, who’s supposed to be a grizzled, stubbly roustabout we meet in his 30s, with many years of treasure hunting under his belt. Holland is 25 years old but still presents on-screen as an overeager teenager, recalling his work in the Spider-Man films; every line is delivered as an anguished yelp or a pleading sigh. To counteract Holland’s glaring youth, the story (written by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway) is positioned as a prequel to the game series, with more emphasis on Mark Wahlberg’s role as Nathan’s mentor and partner, Sully, who helps introduce him to the world of cutthroat antiquing.

In the games, Sully is a cigar-chomping, fun-loving father figure; much like Holland, Wahlberg doesn’t seem to have gotten the character memo. The film should thrive on buddy energy, but their repartee is grimly forced, a grab bag of generic insults batted back and forth (Nathan is young, Sully’s old; Nathan is short, Sully is slightly less short; and so on). Wahlberg’s script probably should have been printed on the back of his paychecks, just to gin up a little enthusiasm for the material. Instead, as with several big-budget vehicles he’s starred in recently (think Infinite or the most recent Transformers movie), Wahlberg seems almost actively disdainful of the lines he’s reading, dispensing them through gritted teeth.

Holland’s gee-whiz energy is equally frustrating. Nathan, a cheerful novice who grew up in an orphanage and whose older brother, Sam (Rudy Pankow), vanished when he was a kid, seems entirely unsuited to the backstabbing tactics of treasure seeking. Sully repeatedly tells him to trust no one, and the two duplicitous femmes fatales the pair cross paths with, Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) and Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), give little reason to discount that advice, yet Nathan remains fairly guileless. Antonio Banderas introduces another threat as a villainous Spanish tycoon who delivers every line with a rueful purr. They’re all in pursuit of the explorer Magellan’s lost fortune, some hoping for riches but others (like Nathan) more driven by the sheer sense of adventure.

To Fleischer’s credit, he endeavored to film mostly on location and avoid the hermetic feeling of green-screen sets. The middle portion of the film, easily the strongest, has fun with the characters bounding through the streets and sewers of Barcelona. Still, the movie can’t even summon the puzzle-solving energy of something like the most recent film adaptation of Tomb Raider. There’s rarely much logic at work; Sully consults one ancient text from time to time, but most of the clues leading our heroes from location to location are obvious. That episodic structure is more acceptable in a video game, where each new site is a whole universe to explore; in Uncharted, many of the destinations feel anonymous. The action sequences are similarly tame, but for one death-defying skydive out of a cargo plane that is composed almost entirely of goopy CGI and is many steps removed from the thrillingly real stunt work of a Mission: Impossible movie.

Any Uncharted adaptation would have had a difficult task at hand, given the original material. Video games have gotten quite good at imitating movies, but translating games to cinema has always proved a much more challenging task. Games like Uncharted require a nonspecific tinge to their storytelling so that any player can identify with the world he’s operating in. But Uncharted removes the thrill of controlling the main character, leading to a sterile, banal viewing experience, a tech demo for an out-of-date product.