Uncharted: The Quest for Video Game Gold

As has now become commonplace, there has been yet another movie based on a video game. But Uncharted is different from the others in ways that make it better, and ways that leave it short of the ultimate goal.

Splash screen graphic of Uncharted with all the major characters

So, in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I have never played the games. Uncharted always was a PlayStation exclusive (thanks for that, Sony), and I never got the chance to play it. But as a person alive in the 21st Century, I saw the mixed reaction to the trailer. There were a lot of things: Tom being to young to play Nathan, Mark being nothing like Sully (again, I wouldn’t know), and a lot more. But after watching the movie, I can say that that was on purpose, in order to tell the story they wanted to. Uncharted is an origin story much like any other we’re familiar with. And so while fans of the game are used to a certain type of character (Nathan and Sully), this movie tells the story of how Nathan Drake becomes Nathan Drake, and I think that choice makes this movie miles better than most video game adaptations. Some (Tomb Raider) throw the audience into a story with a fully realized main character and this makes the whole movie feel like just another level in the game. There’s nothing special tying me to that particular adaptation (except Angelina, of course). Others (Assassin’s Creed) try to leverage on the special nature of the story of the game and give the viewers something resembling an origin story, but it falls horrible short and we end up with another video game level on the big screen (and a wasted 4 hours. Yes, I watched AC twice.) Uncharted isn’t like that. It tells it’s own story, allowing people like me come to the movie and bond with the characters I’m seeing, while incorporating elements from the game franchise and using it to serve its own ends.

For this particular review, I’m gonna try to split it into what worked and what didn’t. So without further ado, what worked.

First off, the cast is phenomenal. The chemistry between the characters is excellent and we can feel the “relationships” that existed before Nathan dropped into this world even without being shown. The vibes (for lack of a better word) between Sully, Braddock, and Frazer do a wonderful job of making Nathan (and us) feel alien in this new environment. And the actors themselves are great. I love Tom Holland in basically everything he does and this is no exception. There was a “fear” that it was going to end up being a “Peter Parker cosplays as Nathan Drake” performance but it isn’t. Not for the most part, at least. He is Nate. A younger, more naïve Nate, but still Nate. I like that there was what felt like a conscious effort to remind the audience that this Nate is an adult, with the drinking and the swearing. Would it have been necessary with different, more “adult” looking actor? Probably not. But it adds to the movie’s charm.

Second, the story. On the face of it, it’s a pretty basic story. Protagonists try to get a McGuffin before the bad guys get there. Nothing too groundbreaking. But the simple stories have the most potential for subtextual storytelling, and I think this movie excels at that. The main “theme” is trust among the thieves. Sully trusts no-one, Frazer has been burned before, and Nate is too trusting. By the end of the movie, Sully learns that he has to be willing to trust other people, and Nate learns that naïve people get burned in this game (Frazer kinda gets forgotten). They meet each other at the middle of their previously held positions. Another great thing that happens inside the story is the filmmakers showing Nate to be as inexperienced as we expect him to be. He’s new to all of this, and sure he’s a great pickpocket (which will come in handy later), he’s not some master thief or cunning explorer. But he gets better at this new side of his life more and more, culminating (in my opinion) in his wearing the brown gun holster nearing the end of the movie and “becoming” Nathan Drake.

The boy becomes a man.

Third, the vibes. I know, this one is a bit weird, but I didn’t know what exactly to call it. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. Uncharted is based off a video game franchise that is more-or-less even split between puzzle solving and fast-paced action sequences. In the same vein, the first half on this movie follows Nate and the gang as they solve one puzzle after another to unlock clues to further the plot, with some well-timed chasing and shooting. After certain things happen (which I won’t spoil here), the second half drops the puzzles and it’s straight action in a dash to the finish line. I felt like the split between puzzle solver and 3rd person shooter was very well done and helped to balance the movie.

Now onto the things that didn’t work.

The villains weren’t great. It suffers a bit from the “Iron Man 3 disease”, where the bad guy keeps constantly changing. Plus they never really affect the plot in any meaningful way, like they’re just along for the ride.

The movie’s treatment of Frazer was less than ideal. I mean, they’d been teamed up for most of the movie and she’s just gone for the final sequence? It’s explained in the film but the fact that it happened just rubs me wrong. And I get that this is meant to be Nate and Sully’s movie, but why introduce a character and go through the trouble of giving them backstory if you’re just gonna drop them for the last sequence? It just doesn’t feel right.

Finally, the emotional moments in the movie don’t really work. Frazer’s story about why she’s in this business don’t really move you. It’s like “okay, generic backstory. Got it.” And the same can be said for Nate. More could have been made about why he carries a lighter around that’s well past it’s usefulness, but the chance is whiffed. Even the moments when the lighter works could have been used to solidify some “he’s looking after you” feeling, but again, nothing. Honestly, this was the most disappointing part of the movie to me.

Uncharted is a good movie. And while there have been many a film based off games of a similar genre, this movie makes different creative choices, and while it’s not quite a masterpiece, it is still miles better than most other video game adaptations.

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