The onus of adapting a video game into a movie has long been a deterrent in the American film industry. Despite video games being the most profitable entertainment industry by an ever-increasing margin, few of them end up on the silver screen and even fewer are broadly palatable. Everyone remembers the Super Mario Bros. movie. Everyone remembers Mortal Kombat. Very few people would stand in front of you and tell you those movies are objectively good. Do we have fond memories of them? Sure. Are we gushing about their artistic prowess and their creativity? Not really.
A large part of this equation comes from the approach taken to these adaptations. I have written about video games for the last decade, so luckily I don’t have a strong opinion about this at all. See, video games are, at their core, about giving their players the ability to interact with the world around them. It’s a negotiation with player choice and creator story in the center. What story is it you are trying to tell, how do you want to tell it, and how do players get to interact within that framework? For this reason, in most cases, just ripping a game whole-cloth into a film would fall very flat. The denouement of an interactive story loses its gravitas if the medium it is shown in doesn’t allow its audience to place its thumb on the scales.
The pathos of the medium is giving players the chance to make a part of the story they see in front of them their own. By giving choices and showing player impact, all things following carry an air of player responsibility. Film rarely achieves this mental paradigm. In many ways, they simply can’t.
I have long languished over the fact that we haven’t seen movies drawn from more games, where so many titles are perfect for the prospect. The thing is, and I am thoroughly convinced of this, the film can not mirror the game for any more than ten to fifteen percent of the film’s runtime. These projects need to be carefully chosen, set in the universe of a game rather than specific events from a game. I will not budge on this.
Fortunately, Uncharted, Sony’s first live-action game adaptation, follows my own ethos.
The Uncharted games first released in 2007. A PlayStation exclusive, the series of games evoked the air of Indiana Jones and previously Jones-inspired titles like Tomb Raider. In fact, Tomb Raider stands out as one of the first fiscally successful game adaptations, outselling Mortal Kombat by more than double its worldwide gross at over $274 million.
Let’s be completely honest up front (which I realize is oxymoronic to say nearly 500 words in): people love adventurers. It’s why we fell in love with Indiana Jones in the first place. But from the lofty heights of Lord of the Rings to the much smaller but goofily excellent Sahara, moviegoers like to watch puckish rogues hunt for treasure. In this way Uncharted had, and has, absolutely everything going for it from the start. Indiana Jones, while not entirely gone, is on the way out and hasn’t put out a movie in fourteen years. Tom Holland is one of the most exciting in a class of young, talented performers. Mark Wahlberg can’t seem to make a movie bad enough that people won’t watch it. And Ruben Fleischer is genuinely good at filming action comedy.
But most important to Uncharted’s easy ride is the fact that the writing team didn’t seek to replicate any of the games, instead working in the style and spirit of the source material. Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake is distinctively younger than what we’ve seen in the games, and his relationship with Wahlberg’s Sully is just beginning. Still, this doesn’t feel like it is trying to be an origin story for the games, largely because the creative team pull references from several of the games. The most notable is an airborne scene that feels ripped right from the controller to the screen.
Most importantly, Uncharted is fun whether you have played the games or not. That’s the benefit of making stories about treasure hunters. You don’t really need to know much more than, “There’s treasure, I have a piece of the map, and I know where to find the next piece.” Add to that formula a few baddies that are hunting the treasure in parallel and you’ve largely done all the work. That sounds reductive, but I don’t intend it to be. Indiana Jones, National Treasure, The Goonies, Tomb Raider, Sahara, even Pirates of the Caribbean follow the same formula. It works. Race for the treasure, backstab, trick, steal, shoot lots of guns.
Where this leads is perhaps predictable. Uncharted isn’t particularly remarkable. It finds itself firmly in the middle of the road. But again, if you are a big fan of these capers, Uncharted is a delicious addition to the tray of fun snacks. It rarely does anything to wow you, save for that airborne scene, which is genuinely thrilling camera work, choreography, and execution. There are a few moments where I caught myself thinking in all caps, THIS IS THE MOST VIDEO GAME S**T, and honestly, it rules. What it does do well is frame these characters up for a sequel, which I am one hundred percent going to be there for.
Uncharted is a good movie. It’s not a great movie, but a film that went through development hell as long as this one did is fortunate to come out and show as well as it does. Tom and Mark really work on screen together, Sophia Ali’s Chloe Frazer is engaging and alluring, Antonio Banderas is a better villain here than in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. You know, it’s a treasure hunt. It’s fun, action-packed, and deeply respectful of its source material. People forget how silly Indiana Jones is. Uncharted walks alongside, in lockstep. | Caleb Sawyer