Principal cast: Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Ali, Tati Gabrielle
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Running time: 1 hr 56 mins
Where to watch: In theatres
The year 1993 marked the release of Super Mario Bros., which was significantly touted as the first feature-length live-action film based on a video game. The film, apart from being a sufficiently post-literary cornucopia of extravagant visual effects and flippant cultural references for its time, is also widely viewed as the point of inception for a wretched tradition of unendurable video game adaptations that prevails to this day.
Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario franchise, amicably voiced his disappointments with the film by stating, “The one thing that I still have some regrets about is that the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And, in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”
Since then, there have been only a handful (if one is being generous) of video game adaptations that I have found tolerable; these include Detective Pikachu (2019), Werewolves Within (2021), and the two Angry Birds films (2016 and 2019). Not unanticipated, then, is that 29 years after the tradition’s inauguration, director Ruben Fleischer and Sony Pictures Entertainment promulgate their incapacity in venturing into bolder lands by making Uncharted a film whose entire journey feels so violently trodden and deterministically charted, my response to the plodding plot oscillated between truculent frustration and irresistible indifference.
The film belongs to that cluster of cinematic rejects that neither satisfy the criterion of Miyamoto’s criticism of Super Mario Bros. by being too obedient in replicating the elements of their source material, nor do they unshackle the source material from the chains of a rigorous position of immovable “originality” by delineating a novel course that celebrates the transitional inter-textual tenacities of adaptation. Without exaggeration, I was frequently more tempted to observe the only two fellow members of the audience in my theatre, who happened to be a nearly conjoined kissing couple, instead of the film.
The plot faithfully follows the tenets of the orthodox treasure-hunt tale, with some inane pseudo-history lessons sprinkled on top. Nathan Drake (Holland) is a nimble and bright young bartender who uses his occupation to pick the pockets of his wealthier patrons. His older brother Sam (Rudy Pankow) has been missing for years. Nathan is recruited by seasoned treasure hunter Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan (Wahlberg), who claims to have worked with Sam, and seeks Nathan’s assistance and historical acumen in locating a treasure hidden by the crew of the Magellan-Elcano expedition of 1522. To achieve this, they must outstrip ruthless heir and capitalist Santiago Moncada (Banderas) and mercenary Jo Braddock (Gabrielle).
Frankly, the only way in which the characterisations could have been any less subtle is if the makers managed to glue the words “conflicted-hero-about-to-be-redeemed” and “villainous villain” on the actors’ foreheads. There is more earnest character development in the gameplay tutorials of the Uncharted games than there is in the film. It attempts to evoke the endearing snarky banter between Sully and Nathan that enlivened the proceedings of the games, but for that to be attained, the characters in the film needed to have been fleshed out in a more robust fashion.
The writing of Sully’s character, in particular, felt butchered. He is supposed to be a middle-aged veteran with salt-and-pepper moustache and hair, but Wahlberg is not permitted to visually or spiritually step foot in that vicinity. Another character sourced from the games and similarly debased is that of Chloe Frazer (Ali). In the games, she is a layered character who pursues resolution with a troubled past and struggles to build sustainable relationships while still feeling the need for them. In the film, however, she is turned into a one-dimensional symbol of uncritical treachery; the “girl” to round out a triumvirate also consisting of the “conflicted hero” and the “villainous villain”.
The screenplay by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway is afflicted by pointless repetitions of threadbare conventions. The action mechanically shifts from one digitally aided set piece to another, without any attempt to even cheekily pervert the predictability of such a movement. As a result, the film feels fragmented and ill at ease with its own unremarkable monotony. The script is clearly keen on conveying its supposed thrilling core, which is conspicuously missing, but its formulaic treatment turns it into a coltish swindler without enough acuity to swindle a sizeable amount of anything.
This could have been prevented with minimal devotion to developing the dormant possibilities of quieter or less frantic scenes, which would have amplified the subsequent explosion of conflict. A sense of tension and peril, which is crucial to any adventure-driven narrative, is mercilessly murdered here by artifice. The dialogue feels stiff, uptight, and tightly choreographed, generating the impression that each line was approved by a Board of Approval for Strained Speech before it could be delivered. As one might expect, attempts at humour in a framework such as this are especially torturous for the viewer. This is a prominent shortcoming, given Fleischer’s prior work in tongue-in-cheek films like Zombieland (2009), 30 Minutes or Less (2011), and Venom (2018).
The background music is unnecessary and distracting; come to think of it, whatever distracts from a film like this could be twisted to appear praiseworthy. The editing by Chris Lebenzon and Richard Pearson is humourlessly choppy and rushed, leaving much room for the seamless transitions between scenes that require thematic continuity between changing geographies. Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is marginally better, with the colour palette resembling that of the games in various places. The visual effects are overdone, with not nearly enough physical combat to supplant the gradual haze of computer-generated imagery that covers most films of this sort today.
The performances are mostly disappointing as well. Holland is woefully miscast as Nathan, whose initial days prior to his later adventures in the games are being showcased. Even as a young explorer, Nathan required touches of the rugged ingenuity that would later shape him. Here, Holland’s baby-faced attempts at playing the beguiling and enterprising trickster reveal a plastic charm with which the character becomes burdened. Wahlberg sails through the film smoothly enough, blessed with a character with almost no complexities for the most part. For no fault of Banderas, other than that of accepting the role, his performance is jejune, unchallenging, and futile. Ali and Gabrielle, as required by the plot, mostly play wooden planks.
As a film, Uncharted evidently fancies itself as an effective tribute to its cinematic predecessors. At some point, sadly, one realises that it is no more than a corporatised welter of uninspiring tedium which is a constipated imitation of its ancestors at best, and an idea that deserved to rot in development hell at worst. It is what one would get if one decided to give Abbas-Mustan a $120 million budget to make a neo-Spielbergian fantasy-adventure hotchpotch with “adventure for the sake of adventure” as its motto. Films like Uncharted could easily be titled ‘Fast and Furious Raiders of the National Treasure of the Caribbean’ and passed off as amusing parodies if they did not parade their self-importance around in the way they do.
Fortunately, Dr. Indiana Jones did not have films such as this to transpose imagery of potential adventures onto his plans to set out on some of them. If he did, he may not have wandered beyond the confines of his college’s department of archaeology.