If ever two modern art forms were made for each other, it must be video games and movies. Like music and dance of old, they share so much basic DNA. From cinematic scope to comfortable, archetypal characters and settings, both experiences immerse and indulge us. In this current golden age especially, the technology of gaming and filmmaking has finally, definitively caught up to our human imagination and is redefining narrative creation itself. Why then are there so few good games based on movies and even fewer great movie adaptations of games?
This question is decades old and hotly contested daily among the gaming faithful. We are getting closer perhaps, on the movie side at least, with Alicia Vikander’s “Tomb Raider” and “Detective Pikachu,” but last year’s “Mortal Combat” was a huge disappointment. Next up to the block is Tom Holland. He’s portraying one of PlayStation’s most iconic characters.
Nathan Drake is the star of the highly rated Uncharted video game franchise, with multiple adventures on PlayStation consoles dating back to 2007. He’s a professional treasure hunter with a slightly shady backstory and a fierce intelligence to match his rugged, leading man good looks. He’s well-read, well-traveled and well-versed in combat, survival and any other skill necessary to defeat bad guys on the way to solving a historical mystery.
I must admit that, though I love games, I’ve never played an Uncharted title. So, I was going in blind when I saw the much-anticipated film version of Nathan’s story. “Uncharted” the movie is out now in theaters and stars Mark Wahlberg, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle alongside Holland. Their shared goal and essential conflict are simple: Find the lost riches of Ferdinand Magellan before anybody else does. Money is no object. Neither are physics, time, gravity or pretty much any other kind of consequential reality.
I know. I hear myself. Swashbuckling movies like “Uncharted” are not supposed to feel real. I get that concept and I can lean into it. But for the preposterous circumstances of this kind of escapism to feel like a possible version of this world, the protagonists must suffer something at least slightly reminiscent of our own limits. They have to bleed a little bit. There’s a scene in “Uncharted” where Nathan Drake gets pistol whipped and knocked out cold. When Wahlberg’s character, Sully, finds him, he takes one look at the younger man and says, “She really got you good.” But when the camera cuts to Drake, there’s not a mark on him. In fact, none of the many punches to the face he endures throughout the course of the movie leaves a bruise. Not one.
“Uncharted” is also full of massive, crazy set pieces that put Drake and others in situations that should either kill them or injure them beyond repair but, like in a video game, they all mostly just stand up and walk away with a fresh health bar and full shields. There’s never really anything to worry about. None of that quibbling would be necessary if the plot were built from stronger stuff. But the supposedly grand central mystery of “Uncharted” is so blandly derivative of scripts we’ve heard before, it forces the little things to stand out. It’s convenient when it should be twisty. It’s ridiculous when it should be thrilling. And if Tom Holland weren’t so incredibly charming, this would have been a much harder watch.
I enjoyed escaping into “Uncharted” because I am a fan of the cast, and I’ll watch the sequel as long as the producers keep them intact. But, like a hidden grail or a buried chest of diamonds, the one great video game movie is still out there waiting to be found.