November 2007 saw the release of game developer Naughty Dog’s action/adventure third-person perspective game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Since then, the series has developed six more titles that function as either sequels or spin-offs, tracking the adventures of Nathan Drake, Vincent “Sully” Sullivan, Chloe Frazer, and Elena Fisher as they seek out fame and fortune amid various dangers natural and manmade. It makes sense that Sony Pictures would want to develop a live-action version of this very profitable and popular PlayStation exclusive game, yet it sat in development for some time as various principle members dropped in and out of it due to one issue or another. It took so long, in fact, that interested actor Mark Wahlberg (Four Brothers) went from playing adult Drake to Drake’s surly companion Sully, while Sony Pictures star Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming trilogy) slid into the lead role in a newly fashioned prequel film. Having seen a theatrical release in February 2022, the Holland-Wahlberg-led video game adaptation Uncharted, directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) from a script from writers Rafe Judkins (Chuck), Art Marcum (Iron Man), and Matt Holloway (Iron Man), now hits shelves on home video, requiring no clues, no puzzles, and no global trips to track down.
It’s been 15 years since brother Sam Drake left to pursue the mystery of the Magellan-Elcano expedition which was rumored to have possessed an enormous golden treasure, and Nathan Drake (Holland) finds himself a bartender with a wealth of knowledge that comes in handy when trying to engage with a little pickpocketing from his wealthy clientele. This changes when Victor Sullivan (Wahlberg) arrives at his bar offering Nathan an opportunity to find the answers he and his brother sought to find long ago. Doing so, however, puts the naïve treasure hunter on the radar of Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), a member of the family who originally bankrolled Magellan’s expedition who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get their investment back. Caught in a situation where the allure of the truth (both of his brother’s fate and of the gold itself) and the life-or-death danger he finds himself in as Moncada’s hired assassin Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and her goons close in, Nathan is going to have to step up if he’s going to survive.
The following home release review will not engage in any kind of comparison between Fleischer’s film and the game series as I’ve never played any of the games, not out of lack of interest, but ours is an Xbox/NES home. So if you’re looking for some sense of how truthful Uncharted is to the games, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Additionally, this home release review will discuss some specific details of the film, so if you’re looking for a spoiler-free read, here’s your second heads-up that you might want to bail now.
That said, it is clear that Fleischer and the creative team did try to incorporate some elements of the gaming experience by throwing in the occasional first-person sequence to make it feel like a cut-scene, and Holland himself mentions his attempts to make certain movements, like jumping from one object to another or climbing, as close to actual gameplay as possible. In the opening sequence, Nathan awakens to find himself floating in the air, his foot tangled in the netting of a supply drop box that’s one of a series of boxes tethered to the plane they are all hanging out of. Just before it cuts to flashback, the camera shifts from us observing Holland as Nathan tries to avoid bad guys and get back inside the plane to his perspective as he flies through the air, having been knocked off his feet. It’s a bit of free fall which anyone having played either first-person or third-person games will recognize as a method that the developers use to help the player get within the headspace or experience of the character. Thankfully, the film doesn’t rely on this particular gimmick very much, allowing it to appear as a nice stylistic flourish amid a more traditional action/adventure swashbuckling ride. Because of this, folks who are familiar with the games are more likely to recognize the reference, while non-gamers and/or non-Uncharted players can still enjoy the film as a more general adventure story. For example, toward the end of the film, Nathan climbs aboard a ship by jumping up and grabbing an exposed cannon, using that to lift himself up onto the ship. If not for Holland mentioning that this was a specific choice to emulate how Drake moves as a character when engaging with his surroundings, I’d have just presumed this was a more adventurous way to climb up, not a reference for Uncharted fans. It’s this wider accessibility which helps Uncharted (the film) be a good time.
Which Uncharted absolutely is, though it mostly achieves this on the back on the all-too-game cast. It’s a globetrotting adventure, to be sure, yet there’s something missing in the execution to make it feel as mythical as the Ark of the Covenant, a national treasure hidden by the Founders, or even One-Eyed Willie’s gold. Rather than using the allure and intrigue shared by the audience and characters to encourage the audience to lean in, Uncharted makes it worth the visit (and possible re-visit) with its cast. For the first time in a long time, Holland’s vocal inflection doesn’t sound like Peter Parker, a trouble I’ve had distinguishing one performance (live-action or animated) from another. Between this, Holland’s physicality (he does as many stunts as the film would allow), and his chemistry with Wahlberg, Uncharted feels like we’re seeing Holland truly step into a leading role that feels more mature, even if the character is still more fresh than several of his other on-screen personas. Wahlberg, too, seems to be naturally settling into a more mature, less physical role with his performances of late. He can still do action (Infinite) and remains adept at it, but his fast tongue helps him shine as Sully, the grey mentor to Nathan’s very white treasure hunter. From the bonus features, specifically “The Buddy System,” we learn that Holland and Wahlberg would often improvise their dialogue to each other, using the script as a jumping off point to help them find their versions of the character. If you pay attention in the key sequence, you can catch Sophia Ali in what appears to be a break in character as Chloe Frazer’s face starts to laugh at one of the pair’s exchanges. Entertaining as the stunts are, Uncharted wouldn’t be as watchable with two leads who’re clearly having a ball together. Add in Ali and Gabrielle as foils for the two and you’ve got yourself a tennis match, the quips and punches flowing in equal measure as the actors embody what happens when you get in the treasure hunter life.
Where the film falters is two-fold: the wavering cleverness of its lead character and the reliance on CG for some of the stunts. Straight-up, I buy a young Nathan being able to problem-solve this centuries-old mystery over the course of the film. This is something he and his brother have been working on for ages and Nathan gets a quick leg up thanks to the work Sully’s done prior to their meeting. All Nathan has to do is make his knowledge practical. No issue here. What I do take issue with is the flashback shows us Nathan using his brother’s lighter as a means of seeing a hidden message, after which the film then breadcrumbs that Sam has been leaving Nathan messages in the postcards he’s sent to Nathan over the years. Nathan even comments that Sam and he used to use coded messages, so why did it *never* occur to Nathan to check the postcards as they came in? As a character, the motivation to go on this journey with Sully is as much about finding the gold as it is learning about his brother and possibly finding him. The script makes it very clear in the brief workout montage that Nathan’s been keeping himself in shape so as to be limber for whatever shenanigans Sam might get him into. So why does it take so long into the film for Nathan to make the connection? Additionally, for a film which has a number of great on-location set pieces, the ones which ruin the illusion are the ones which don’t blend the physical sets or pieces attached to a gimbal with the final composite image we see that’s had VFX work done on it. I can buy Nathan jumping from supply box to supply box — the camera’s in tight, Holland is in focus, his movements are clear and easy to follow — but it’s harder to believe when he and Chloe are trying to get their balance on a supply box as it flies through the air as the camera swirls around them and their bodies start to take on a plastic, computer-generated look. It also doesn’t help that the difference in quality is far more noticeable depending on the action on-screen. The museum heist sequence is very clearly a practical sequence, movements easier to track with longer shots and less cutting, whereas the big action sequence at the end involves the amount of cuts which can make someone dizzy. Even worse, it’s the amount of cuts that make one wonder if the cast was able to complete the stunt as intended or if something’s being hidden.
If there’s one nit-pick that’s clearly just fan-service, it’s the brief-yet-extended exchange between Nathan, Chloe, and the hotel guest they speak with on the beach after surviving their in-air fall. For fans of the Uncharted series, it’s an opportunity to celebrate Nathan North, the video game voice-actor for Nathan Drake who also served as the physical representation of the character. For folks like me, it’s a strange interruption to the flow of the film that they have this exchange with a stranger. If I weren’t familiar with North from his work in other properties, gaming, animated film, and live-action programming, I would’ve been really curious why we had to stop the film to find out that this rando could relate to the pair having fallen out of the sky. It may have been stronger to utilize a small, subtle honorific as they walked by — like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel walking past Captain Marvel comic writer Kelly Sue DeConnick or even the way that Arnold Schwarzenegger hands the metaphorical action hero torch to Dwayne Johnson as a bar patron who simply remarks “Have fun” as they pass each other – because the scene as constructed is extended enough to draw curiosity, which can be confusing to those less familiar with the reference, disrupting the momentum of the scene.
Whether you loved Uncharted or not, the bonus features, brief though they may be, do highlight just how much care went into making the film. In addition to a feature-length audio commentary featuring Fleischer, there’s a menagerie of materials: one music video, four theatrical release marketing videos, six featurettes, and eight deleted/extended scenes. Excluding the commentary, you’re looking at roughly 45 minutes of materials to help deepen your knowledge and fun of the film. As someone with zero knowledge of the games, it was particularly fascinating to learn how Uncharted incorporated referential material (movement, sequences, frequent & specific curses Drake uses) into a wholly original story. This may upset purists who find the storylines of the game series perfect as is (and I get it, I lived through the mess that is 2008’s Max Payne), but I can also see the opportunity, as expressed in the featurettes, that doing a prequel offers: you can see Nathan at the start of his journey and then borrow as needed to craft new stories that may have the potential to delight both gaming and general audiences alike. It certainly doesn’t hurt that you can feel the excitement in making this and the possibility of more films come through whenever Holland and Wahlberg (though mostly Holland) interject their perspectives on the process of making the film.
Uncharted is an opportunity to have a ball at the movies, something which often gets lost between the art house films and major blockbusters. It’s the kind of film which relies as much on fun characters being clever as it does the action, harkening back to the adventure stories of our, or at least this reviewer’s, youth. If they can retain as much of the central cast as they can and maybe tighten up the editing, everything needed for a solid action/adventure crowd-pleasing series may be right here.
Uncharted Special Features:
4K UHD, Blu-ray, and Digital:
- Commentary with Director Ruben Fleischer (1:55:57)
- Music Video (2:38)
- Four (4) Theatrical Marketing Clips (4:27)
- Eight (8) Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:59)
- Six (6) Behind the Scenes Featurettes
- Never a Dull Moment: Stunts & Action (5:54)
- Villains, Backstabbers & Accomplices (4:21)
- Charting the Course: On Set with Ruben Fleischer (4:28)
- The Buddy System (3:49)
- Becoming Nathan Drake (4:00)
- Big Action Breakdown: C-17 Globemaster (5:03)
- The Buddy System (3:49)
Available on digital April 26th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD May 10th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Uncharted website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.