Uncharted game series protagonist Nathan Drake owns a ring he claims came from his forebear, explorer Sir Francis Drake. It’s engraved “Sic Parvis Magna,” or “Greatness from small beginnings.” The game series reflected that motto, with the modest first installment spawning three direct sequels, each better than the last.
But that greatness isn’t reflected in the movie version of Uncharted. It’s a small beginning for a possible Sony film franchise, but yet another dud of a video game adaptation. A glimmer of sequel potential is stowed away in a second post-credits scene, where a sudden burst of chemistry in the riffraff banter between treasure-hunting pals Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) and Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) is sure to make people wonder where such lively line deliveries have been for the last two hours. For one minute, everything about the characters feels right, but it comes far too late.
Throughout the film, Zombieland and Venom helmer Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway ping-pong between as many game franchise characters and new additions as they can possibly cram into one origin story. In the game series, the characterization is more compact and robust. The Drake-and-Sully duo function as the thieving core in the first installment, before the designers expand their roster and flesh out their backstory in subsequent entries. The series’ villains have never been interesting, but there’s some personality behind motives like seeking the Tree of Life to gain eternal youth, or magicians attempting to fracture Nathan and Sully’s deeply established friendship. That verve is missing in the film version as well.
The film version feels like the writers were assigned different aspects of adapting the Uncharted formula: puzzle-solving, sneaking around, parkour, and larger-than-life action. The fragmented story makes it even more difficult for them to introduce and alternate between so many different characters. But even without the burden of introducing so many characters, the choices propelling Uncharted still lack stakes, genuine peril, fascinating twists on history, or adrenaline-pumping adventure.
Some of the action sequences are lifted straight from the games, most recognizably the much-advertised cargo-plane fight from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, where Nathan free falls to what seems like certain death. Fleischer and the writers find convenient ways to initiate the set piece — which in the games builds from a car chase in which the player jumps into the plane as it’s taking off on the runway — but in live-action it’s done with a blockbuster kitchen-sink method that can’t escalate the tension with so many characters in the mix. It’s admirable that they want to shake up the familiar elements, but there’s no weight or emotional gravitas to anything that happens. (Also, anyone who’s played these games knows nothing should come easy or convenient for Nathan Drake.)
The Uncharted games have never focused on realistic action, but some moments in the film adaptation still stretch the fantasy a bit too far. (There’s some business with a sports car that would make Dominic Toretto blush with embarrassment.) It’s as if no one bothered to consider how cartoonish chaos would come across in the context of a two-hour movie that veers between serious and lighthearted. There’s no room for any spectacle to stand out, or for the characters to develop a rapport organically. Various fight sequences are choppily and rapidly edited together, surrounded by obvious green screens. That’s a particular disappointment, considering the four mainline Uncharted games consistently pushed the boundaries of what the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 could achieve graphically.
Worst of all, the central characters lack even a trace of dimension. In defense of Tom Holland, his basic movements — punching combos, climbing, and positioning behind objects when sneaking — are so carefully calibrated to his video game counterpart that when no one is speaking, and there is a moment of coherence in the action, it’s briefly thrilling to see Drake brought to life so efficiently on the silver screen. Even the way Nathan Drake and Sully disperse upon entering a Barcelona church to look for clues feels like it’s modeled after the games, with the audience in the action, searching alongside the characters.
But from the moment Sully walks into a New York bar where Nathan is serving up drinks, being a know-it-all wise-ass, and pickpocketing patrons, the line readings feel forced in a manner that suggests neither of these performers has fully cracked how these characters bounce off each other. The script rarely gives them anything funny to say, which doesn’t help. Mark Wahlberg doesn’t even seem to be trying to replicate Sully, which makes it even stranger when he changes up his accent for one line to sound like him. The game’s version of the character is more of a sarcastic Bruce Campbell type than Marky Mark’s motormouth effusion. Even when Holland occasionally seems like a decent version of Nathan Drake, Wahlberg is usually in the same frame to obliterate the illusion.
Actors stepping into a video game adaptation don’t need to look or sound exactly like their digital counterparts. At the end of the day, all that matters is whether Uncharted the movie crackles as a quest for gold with likable characters. The problem is that it doesn’t. The version of Sully here is a much more selfish and greedy man who recruits Nathan to locate lost gold from a doomed Ferdinand Magellan expedition. Nathan is uninterested, until Sully mentions that he was trying to uncover the mystery with Nathan’s brother Sam, whom Nathan hasn’t seen since Sam ran away from the orphanage where they lived as children.
Nathan has some stashed-away postcards Sam sent him over the years, suggesting that he does still care about Nathan. (Besides, it wouldn’t be an Uncharted story without crumpled handwritten visual clues.) According to Sully, the final clue is hidden in them, and following the clues could let the brothers reunite. With his hunger for the gold and Nathan’s for reconciliation intertwined, they join forces.
Nathan comes into their first DIY field mission as a rookie who fumbles his plans and hasn’t gotten down the basics of jumping and swinging yet. That sequence — inspired by Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End — stands out slightly, given the sense that Nathan is actually in danger. But his flaws, and the life-or-death stakes, disappear in the blink of an eye. If the movie needs him to be good at something, he suddenly is.
Among the other game characters the film introduces, Sophia Ali manages the film’s best game-character mimicry as Sully’s partner in crime Chloe Frazer. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves implies Chloe and Nathan had a romantic past, but the movie doesn’t fill in any intriguing gaps, beyond how they met and how Nathan crushed on her. Instead, Uncharted uses all these characters and clues to set up a story about trust. Backstabbing takes center stage, but only as a mechanism to keep the plot going. None of these thieves can trust each other, which is par for the course in an Uncharted narrative, but there might be more double-crosses and betrayals here in two hours than there are in any one of the 12-to-15-hour games.
Hot on Drake and Sully’s tail is Antonio Banderas’ Santiago Moncada, the son of a wealthy businessman and descendent of the original Magellan expedition. Santiago sees himself as heir to the spoils and will stop at nothing to retrieve the fortune, especially since his father has no intentions of passing the family’s riches down to him. In a move that might be more unbelievable than all the action sequences combined, Santiago’s father is thinking about giving that wealth to the people as a means of taking accountability for the family’s tainted lineage. So the race is on for Santiago to beat the heroes to the treasure, and he enlists mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle, turning in a physically imposing performance) to get a leg up on Drake and Sully.
The filmmakers have the right idea of what makes an Uncharted action set piece, whether they’re molding a sequence after something from the games, or inventing something entirely new that would fit within one of them, like a bit involving characters battling inside pirate ships hoisted into the air by airplanes. But the execution is flat, inconsequential, and boring. Not even a remix of the Uncharted theme during a climactic shootout, padded up to that point by generic action muzak, brings joy.
One of the only laughs in the movie comes when Nathan Drake notices that even the bad guys are turning on one another. “Seems like it’s hard to keep a partner for long in this business,” he quips. It feels like something his game counterpart would say. Maybe someday, film adaptations of video games will stop betraying us by putting in minimal effort to acknowledge what fans enjoy about the source material, then failing to translate that vague understanding into onscreen excitement. Practically everyone here but Wahlberg is trying to ignite some sort of fire, but just as with the running gag about Nathan failing to properly use his trusty lighter, the spark keeps dying. Some things just aren’t destined for greatness.
Uncharted opens in theaters on Feb. 18.