While they may seem self-congratulatory, in some industries awards can be extremely informative. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was awarded the elusive three Michelin Stars in 2001…McDonald’s was not. Not all cheeseburgers are created equal, while a Mcdonald’s quarter pounder with cheese might be beef, cheese, and garnish on a bun that burger is not the same as the one that can be bought in Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Despite using all the same ingredients as the games, the Uncharted movie proves that the quality of those ingredients and the love and care put into preparing the meal can be the difference between gourmet and drive-thru.
To be extremely clear, Uncharted was not a bad movie and at times it was even a good movie. Just because McDonald’s is made from lower-quality ingredients doesn’t prevent me from enjoying that over-salted, cheap, shitty burger. The first three Uncharted games were directed by Amy Hennig and she undeniably left a unique impression on the series. The first three games felt significantly more light-hearted than A Thief’s End or Lost Legacy. By not dramatizing the character relationships and instead, leaning into the fantastical with the supernatural elements, Hennig’s games were able to fully realize the pulp action-adventure tone she had intended. After Hennig left Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann took over as the director of A Thief’s End, the series took on a much more serious tone.
The movie clearly drew heavy inspiration from the Neill Druckmann era of Uncharted games but seemed to have forgotten the best elements of either era of the games. Obviously, being an action movie and a franchise that is new to film audiences, director Ruben Fleischer neglected both the fun supernatural from the Hennig era and the serious character work from the Druckmann era. These omissions make for an admittedly serviceable but entirely unremarkable action-adventure romp. Similar to how the shift toward a dramatic character-driven story sucked a huge amount of the fun out of what was intended to be a fun first franchise, had the movie embraced that drama, it would have worked to the film’s detriment. Ultimately not embracing the Hennig era of Uncharted hurt the subsequent games and now has hurt the movie as well.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the element of the movie that most closely resembles its video game counterpart is the story. An Uncharted story consists of a few key ingredients: a lost treasure involving a famous historical explorer, a wealthy villain trying to reach that treasure, a henchman villain who provides the primary physical threat in the story keeping their options for betrayal open, Nate and Sully accompanied by their crew of regulars, big action set pieces, a globetrotting journey through exotic locales full of ancient puzzles, and depending on who is directing, a supernatural element. Throw all those ingredients into an AI generator and it will likely be able to generate a decent Uncharted story and that’s exactly what it feels like the writers of the movie did.
But the movie did deviate from the games in a few ways. While in the games Nate met Sully when he was 14 in Colombia, the movie sees the two meeting in New York when Nate is already an adult. Creative liberty in making an adaptation is necessary and this change both hurt and helped the movie. By not bringing Nate and Sully together until Nate is already an adult, the movie creates drama in a pre-existing relationship between Sully and Sam that worked to move the emotional arc between Sully and Nate forward. On the flip side, that delayed meeting between the two main characters will always change the relationship the two have in the films as Sully won’t be able to be a surrogate father figure for Nate. Some of the changes made by the filmmakers enabled interesting changes to the story, but considering the critical reception thus far purists are likely to be disappointed.
Adapting a character from one medium to another is almost always a monumental task. If a character cant be interpreted nearly perfectly, then the best option is to break away from the source material and reinterpret the character significantly enough that the two feel distinct and appropriate for their medium. To land in-between the two comes across as a poor imitation of the original character and unfortunately, that’s where almost every character in the Uncharted movie lands. Nate looks like Tom Holland cosplaying as Nathan Drake and acts like Peter Parker. Sophia Ali’s Chloe looks as though the filmmakers were trying to reimagine a well-known character but failed to characterize her in any meaningful way, resulting in my only knowledge of her personality and motivations coming from the games. The only character that manages to step out of the shadow of their virtual counterpart is Mark Wahlberg’s Sully. Wahlberg’s experience as an actor empowered him to reinvent his character while preserving the essence of what makes Sully unique. In an incredible turn of events, Wahlberg’s Sully is just as enjoyable as the video game Sully, which is regrettably the only character in the movie about which that can be said.
One of the most obvious challenges in adaptation in both directions is presented by the fact that because of their interactive nature, games have significantly more action than movies. The challenge movies face when being adapted from games is the expectation of a visualization of the gameplay experience on screen. While Uncharted clearly attempted to recreate the feeling of playing the games, it failed to do so consistently. The only time the movie remotely captured the feeling of playing the game was during the scene in which Nate was hanging out of the cargo plane. The problem with that scene though is that, just like the characters, it’s simply a lesser imitation of something that was already done better in the game. When the movie is brave enough to step out of the comfort zone and create something new is when the on-screen adventure is at its best. While the action set pieces all felt forced and less than, the puzzles and actual treasure hunting looked as though they could have been ripped straight from an Uncharted game that doesn’t exist.
In a giant shock to nobody, the Uncharted movie that has been stuck in development hell for more than ten years isn’t good. In fact, it’s kind of shocking that the movie is at all coherent and not a total train wreck. In a very strange way, the Uncharted movie’s utter mediocrity in the face of certain doom could shape the future of video game movie adaptations. After accounting for the challenges the production faced, the movie has no right even being as mediocre as it is, and that is likely due to how cinematic the game already is. As an adaptation, Uncharted has all the necessary ingredients for success. But the final product being so bland proves that art is more than the sum of all its parts in the same way that Gordon Ramsay’s burger is better than the one you can order in the drive-thru.
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