It used to be that video game movies were bad because video games didn’t give movies enough to work with; say what you will about Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s “Super Mario Bros.,” but they had to do something to flesh out a story that basically amounted to “Italian stereotype runs from left to right.” Nowadays, in an age when interactive epics are so vast and cinematic that Playstation characters are regularly played by movie stars (and sometimes even modeled to resemble major filmmakers), it seems that video game movies are bad because video games give movies way too much to work with.
No big screen adaptation of “Uncharted” could ever hope to match the globe-trotting, rope-swinging, plane-exploding excitement of Naughty Dog’s massively popular action-adventure franchise, in which professional treasure hunter Nathan Drake scoured the planet in search of priceless artifacts, searched for every corner of the map for even more priceless information about his long-lost brother, and killed enough faceless henchmen along the way to make John Rambo look like John Oliver. Considering that a live-action remake of “Uncharted 4” would be so expensive that a film studio probably wouldn’t even be able to fund it with all the booty in the fabled pirate utopia of Libertalia, it’s no great disappointment that Sony Pictures’ “Uncharted” — for all of its copious and crappy CGI — is still bound by the limits of a piddling $120 million budget, and too small in scale to even feel like a free piece of DLC. The games felt like adventure movies you could play, and so any “Uncharted” movie was always going to come with a pre-installed sense of redundancy.
All an “Uncharted” movie had to accomplish — all that it possibly could accomplish — was to capture the glint and derring-do that helped the series port the spirit of Indiana Jones into the modern world. And while it’s true that the best moments of Ruben Fleischer’s thoroughly mediocre (if not unpleasant) adaptation manage to achieve that goal for three or four entire seconds at a time, this generic multiplex adventure falls so far short of its source material because it fails in the areas where history says it should have been able to exceed it. The areas where movies have traditionally had the upper hand over video games: Characters. Personality. Humor. Humanity! You know, the things that films get for free, and video games have to create through witchcraft. The same things that someone up the ladder decided to leave behind when they took a solid-gold brand like “Uncharted” and turned it into an IMAX-sized chunk of cubic zirconia, resulting in a movie that isn’t just less playable than the game on which it’s based, but less watchable too.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when in this movie’s sordid development process that decision was made, but casting Mark Wahlberg as Victor “Sully” Sullivan is likely what set it in stone. Bringing the same half-cocked, eyebrow-raised, “Peter Berg probably thinks this is funny” energy to the part of Nathan’s grizzled older partner that he has to any number of other roles over the past 15 years, Wahlberg grounds “Uncharted” in a plug-and-play mode that it never has any hope of escaping. Not that credited screenwriters Rafe Lee Judkins and the team of Matt Holloway and Art Marcum — the same Matt Holloway and Art Marcum who wrote the “Transformers” sequel in which Wahlberg learns that the Autobots were once helped by Harriet Tubman — give the actor much help. On the one hand, Sully gets the best line in the movie. On the other hand, that line is about Sully realizing he’s in a Papa John’s. Needless to say, the character’s relationship with Nathan never gets any deeper than “the real treasure was the father figures we made along the way,” and often strains to sell even that.
For his part, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” actor Tom Holland does a fine job of playing a courageous young New Yorker who always does the right thing in the face of potentially corruptive opportunities, the only problem is that Peter Parker doesn’t belong in this story. De-aging Nathan Drake from the flinty Nathan Fillion type he was in the games was always going to be a curveball in service of the movie’s chronology — this “Uncharted” is an all-too-accessible origin story, and therefore a prequel to the games — but the good-natured cockiness and critic-shaming bulk that he brings to the role aren’t enough to offset the feeling that his version of the character is just an overgrown kid.
I had to suspend my disbelief to buy that Nathan is old enough for a job at the swanky bar where he works at the beginning of the film, let alone ready to zip around the world in search of Ferdinand Magellan’s lost gold and kill whatever henchmen get in his way; when Nathan meets the villainous Spanish billionaire Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas doing very Antonio Banderas things) at a fancy auction for high-priced MacGuffins, I half-expected the bad guy to laugh this fresh-faced Zoomer right out of the room. The unfortunate effect of Holland’s casting is that it roots “Uncharted” in Marvel territory during the rare non-superhero tentpole that might offer multiplex audiences a reprieve from that world.
The mere sound of Holland apologizing to the first red shirt he offs in the film’s wonderfully high-flying cold open (a setpiece so fun that Fleischer revisits it again later) is enough to cement the Spider-Man of it all for the next two hours, and the movie’s utter denial of blood and sex only deepen that connection. Despite being half-naked whenever he isn’t soaking through a shirt that must have been sewn with some kind of magical elven fabric that never dries, Holland exudes all the danger and animal magnetism of Tin-Tin. Even when Nathan and his slippery rival Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) are forced to share a hotel room together, they are conspicuously never seen in the bed at the same time. No one was asking for “Uncharted” to be some kind of unfettered NC-17 fuck-fest — this isn’t a Netflix movie about Marilyn Monroe or anything — but the sheer edgelessness of its lead performance reflects the entire tone of a movie that aims to be as plastic as possible at all times.
Fleischer’s competently anonymous direction contributes to the film’s general flavorlessness, as Nathan and Sully chase new clues to the treasure’s whereabouts (and to the location of Nathan’s missing brother) from Barcelona to the Philippines without any sense of urgency or purpose. Set pieces are so hectic and slathered in CGI that you’d eventually trade a Spanish galleon full of gold for a single clear wide shot, which is all the more frustrating because the film’s small handful of action sequences are conceived with more imagination than any recent “Fast & Furious” movie has been able to muster.
It doesn’t help that the entire third act is dulled by insultingly under-thought mini-bosses. Moncada’s goons include Steven Waddington as a henchman whose sole trait is “being Scottish,” plus the wildly overqualified Tati Gabrielle as a radiant femme fatale whose only motivation is to get in Nathan’s way. But the climactic setpiece boasts a high-flying sense of fun, even if Fleischer’s best efforts only serve to indicate how exciting this all might have been with more lucid staging and better visual effects.
Perhaps the film’s Walmart approach to its action would’ve been more forgivable if the “Uncharted” games weren’t so frequently suffused with Spielbergian flair, just as the film’s archetypal characters may have been less underwhelming had the games not managed to establish 10 times the pathos with none of the same flesh and blood. Then again, anyone who still thinks a mega-budget movie will be as cinematic as the video game on which it’s based only has themselves to blame.
Sony Pictures will release “Uncharted” in U.S. theaters on Friday, February 18.