Uncharted (Review)

The appeal of the Uncharted video games was always that they were like playing a movie. It is all the spectacle of blockbuster cinema but with an added immersion that makes it transcend these trappings. The bombast, the swashbuckling, the hyperbolic action, it works because you are in it.

When the Uncharted movie opens with a sequence lifted from the third game, you already see the issue. It is a ludicrous set piece, our main character, Nathan Drake (here played by Tom Holland — though the original voice actor, Nolan North, does have an appropriately silly cameo), is hanging off of cargo that is in the process of falling out of a plane. It’s in medias res stuff, with no knowledge of the stakes; all Drake has to do is mantle his way over falling cargo, while fighting off goons on the way up. It is gravity defying stupidity and it looks incredibly unconvincing. It also has no impact because you know everything will be fine. This is the Hollywood actor in the first scene of the film; no matter how tense it pretends to be, all things will work out. In the game, the fate is up to you. Survival depends on your input so we can get around the constraints of narrative convention. We can have overblown, in medias res action and have it be gripping. The whole jumping up back into a plane, in spite of physics, that also works when you are doing it. When you’re watching, it just looks dumb.

Alas, this is too much of the film. It is a reminder that the real appeal of video games is playing them, that interactivity is key. Yes, the Uncharted games are like movies but this step of interactivity was the brilliant part. Without that, you have rote stuff. The video games do feel like a collection of filmic inspirations, and of wider inspirations from classic adventure stories. In a new medium, and in one that puts you in control, this is a joy. Back in the movie, the result is a theoretical thrill tempered by familiarity. The Uncharted movie is predictable to a fault, a looping sequence of contrivances and clichés in the expected quippy register. It does what you would expect from the genre, but only just, and with very little style.

It’s a globe trotting adventure with code cracking and betrayals. It is a shame, though, that the codes are so underwhelming. The core of the film is solving a mystery and the mystery is sub Dan Brown stuff, with revelations that are often blindingly obvious, seem far too simple or are based around convenient forgetting of key information. A highlight is a throwaway line that a journal the characters find confirms a legend to be true (that’s lucky), and then trying to work out what a picture of a tree linked to Barcelona means in that context. If they were to just read on in the book, they would read repeated, clear references to religion and religious iconography. The mind-blowing revelation, the solution to the tree image clue, is that the next step in the quest is to visit a church with the exact same logo as the image from the book. Really taxing stuff. Just read ahead, folks, it’s not even hard.

None of this really matters, of course. It is a pacey adventure that cares about propulsion. I remember playing Uncharted 3 on release, and being vaguely disappointed about the way the single player campaign hung together. Later I would find out that the developers focused on set-pieces first: the big moments they wanted to make. Then, they built a narrative around it, giving excuses to have awesome things be playable. This film feels the same, but (again) doesn’t have the bonus of being playable. There are characters here, with arcs, but it is all in service of the next big moment. Alas, the big moments just aren’t that good. This is almost a decent adventure movie that’s fun enough to pave up its familiarity, and lack of wider appeal. But, the action is pulled off so blandly. It is underwhelmingly choreographed and just inconsistent. Who is stronger than who, and who can do what in a fight, alters according to where the narrative needs to go. The fast cutting action makes it bewilderingly unreadable and unappealing to watch. The film, as a whole, just looks very bland. It has no visual majesty, no sense of style. It is functional filmmaking at best, and the pedestrian approach pulls the film away from the one thing that should work for it.

Because the rest doesn’t, especially not for me. I love the Uncharted games, a fan since the original who has followed the series ever since, and, yes, I love the action and the spectacle, but I also love the characters. The people in the movie are not the characters from the game. Many have the same names but are either woefully miscast or just completely reframed. And the reframings are bad. They are broader cliches with less personality and less appeal. Everybody is betraying everybody and nobody has time to be a character. Boiling six to ten hour games down into under two hours, where it’s mostly action scenes, means things are condensed. But, rather than working with this in mind, they double down on incidents and drama. Which sucks.

And it really sucks because for most people, this film will be fine. Entertaining if forgettable, with nothing really heinous, just nothing that good. The jokes aren’t quite sharp enough, or funny enough (and there are a lot of them) and the filmmaking isn’t quite good enough. But it is all serviceable. It is not Uncharted though. It is a boiled down, diluted echo that has little of the actual appeal. If you know what you’re missing, this film is a real let down (especially as it is full of forced Easter Eggs to the game, including a sign in a bar that exists just to showcase a throwaway piece of dialogue from Uncharted 2). As its own film, it often reaches the heights of ‘okay’; as an adaptation, it is wholly missed potential and a far cry from what should have been.

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