UNCHARTED is a Greatest Hits of Adventure Filmmaking But Lacks Heart

Tom Holland steps into the shoes of Nathan Drake in this spectacle-filled but disposable videogame adaptation

Legend has it when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sat to first conceptualize what eventually would become Raiders of the Lost Ark, they gave themselves a simple edict: to make a film that was “only the good parts” of other movies, drilling down to the mind’s eye moments of the adventure serials of their youth that they both held so dearly. Thus they created one of cinema’s most finely tuned iconic masterpieces, creating an undeniable movie star out of Harrison Ford and inspiring the next generation of storytellers. One of those influenced were the folks at Naughty Dog Studios, the video game developers who since 2007 have been best known for the Uncharted series, following the exploits of plucky treasure hunter Nathan Drake as he visits exotic locales and finds himself in increasingly ludicrous perils.

Flash forward, and after nearly a decade of development, we now have the film adaptation of Uncharted, starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg; in fact, the film has been gestating for so long that originally Wahlberg was initially meant to play Nathan, but eventually found himself playing the elder mentor role, Victor “Sully” Sullivan. Thus we have a strange chain of events: a movie based on a video game clearly inspired by a film that itself was influenced by serials of a previous era.

The story centers around a young Nathan (Holland), working as a bartender and doing some petty theft on the side, who is approached by Sully to join him in a quest for the legendary lost gold of Ferdinand Magellan. Initially reluctant, Nathan joins on when he is convinced that his long lost brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) might be found in the process.

Thus the adventure is set in motion, and mostly careens pleasantly along from there. There are some obstacles of course, most notably the sinister millionaire Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas, having a lot of fun chewing scenery) and his bevy of henchpeople led by the sociopathic Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). They also cross paths with Chloe, another treasure hunter whom Sully argues is not to be trusted; in turn Chloe questions Sully’s motivations. It’s a lot of people pointing fingers at each other and questioning motivations, but mostly it’s a bunch of loose characters all chasing after a treasure and backstabbing each other along the way.

Despite the copy of a copy process, the end product isn’t as diluted as all that sounds. The movie has memorable action set pieces scattered throughout, and is propulsive enough to never drag or get boring. But the heart of the movie is ultimately somewhat lacking; what elevated Indiana Jones movies above the rest of the pack is that Indiana Jones, and the characters he interacts with, jump off the screen. They are both specific and iconic, set against a backdrop that makes them instantly memorable and vital.

By contrast, Uncharted has some cool moments that are pulling from every genre of adventure stylistically: yes Indiana Jones, but also pirate movies and even dashes of James Bond in the broadly leering gang of villains. Nathan and Sully’s banter taps into a smoothed out 80s buddy cop vibe that may be the movie’s strongest asset, a natural chumminess between Holland and Wahlberg — but also bumps against the most austere elements.

The acting across the board is up to the task; the heroes are all affable if slightly scruffy, and the villains are all sneering and menacing. Wahlberg in particular is noticeably just performing his usual mugging, but it works in this context. Holland, by contrast, is mostly doing a slight modulation of his Spider-Man performance, 25% more prickly, and 10% more Boston than Queens. Banderas is a highlight of the film, muttering and glaring his way through most of his scenes, simmering with menace rather than giving an especially explosive performance.

To the film’s credit, it avoids the worst instincts of adaptations from other source materials. It is a movie that can be enjoyed on its own merits rather than being an endless stream of references that “only true fans” will enjoy. With one exception of a small moment that is both a cute homage but also brings the film to a grinding halt for a moment, the movie never feels like it is hitting the beats of a franchise you know from somewhere else.

But for all the borrowing and homage that the movie pulls from more or less effectively, it never really settles into a story that boosts it past those emblematic pieces. It has the look and feel of a swashbuckling adventure tale, but it never is able to quite get the buy-in it needs for the audience to especially care about these characters. It never embraces its own identity or mood, rather preferring to borrow from legends of the past to tell a cozy and familiar amalgam of elements from more confident and memorable films. It is all extremely watchable and breezes by without much friction. The final act has an action set piece that does feel new and exciting, but it still is couched in film language that it knows the audience will recognize without much effort. It is perhaps ironic that a film with the title Uncharted feels so familiar. The end result is unremarkable, and certainly won’t linger in the memory much past the credits. But it also goes down smoothly enough that it never offends or irritates. It is goes down easy, but never really sets itself apart.

Uncharted opens exclusively in theaters February 18.

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