Columbia Pictures’ new Uncharted movie from Venom director Ruben Fleischer is a testament to the idea that the longer much-buzzed-about adaptations of beloved franchises linger in development hell, the more likely they are to emerge from it — that is if they ever do — as warped misfires that might have been better kept in the drafts. Uncharted isn’t the first movie this is true of. But unlike so many other adaptations in this class, which tend to feel hamstrung by a lack of understanding of what people like about the source material, you do get the sense watching Uncharted that everyone involved vaguely “gets” what all the fuss is meant to be about. Uncharted knows what it’s supposed to be — the problem’s that it is profoundly uninterested in being that thing.
Uncharted draws upon elements from multiple Uncharted games in order to build a story around a younger, more inexperienced Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) who’s sucked into the jet setting, tomb raiding lifestyle after a not-so-chance encounter with conman / treasure hunter Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg). Though Nathan, a lonesome bartender with a troubled past and no close family in the present day, knows better than to trust smooth-talking strangers who pick pockets better than he does, Sully’s able to earn the younger man’s trust and recruit him onto a big job by playing up his connections and similarities to Nathan’s long-lost brother, Sam.
Technically, Uncharted opens on one of its surprisingly few major set pieces that take place towards the end of the movie before jumping back in time to focus on Nathan and Sully’s meeting. But Nathan’s path to lost treasure actually begins back in his adolescence when he (Tiernan Jones in flashbacks) and Sam (Rudy Pankow) were just two wayward boys sneaking out of their orphanage to steal valuable pieces of history from museums, as children are wont to do. What Uncharted attempts to do in its opening scenes is convey to you how Nathan and Sam’s love for treasure hunting and their being ripped away from each other in their youth laid the groundwork for the adult Nathan to become the sort of person to be won over by Sully’s charms. But what Uncharted inadvertently ends up doing instead is drawing attention to its own indecision about who its main character is and what kind of people they are.
Watching Holland and Wahlberg try to play off of one another in basically any of the movie’s comedic scenes is like gazing into a sharp crystallization of just how fraught Uncharted’s journey to the big screen was. Long before it shifts fully into action mode, Uncharted tries to sell you on the idea of itself as a buddy adventure flick. But the bulk of Nathan and Sully’s banter falls flat due to an unfortunate blend of questionable chemistry and hackneyed dialogue that makes even the dullest of video game cutscenes shine by comparison.
Wahlberg, who was one of the frontrunners to play Drake over a decade ago, neither seems particularly excited about nor down on the idea of playing Sully — he just looms like a reminder of the Uncharted movie that could have been. Holland’s Nathan is, by comparison, the more engaging of the two characters, but the degree to which Uncharted attempts to rely on Holland’s boyish charm to carry it ends up hurting the film in a way that becomes progressively more noticeable as it goes on and more characters are introduced. This might not be such a glaring issue if Nathan and Sully’s brotherly camaraderie wasn’t meant to be Uncharted’s beating heart, and if the film had the wherewithal to at least try to make some of its supporting characters feel like people instead of walking, talking callbacks to the games.
By the time that Nathan and Sully set out on their mission to track down a lost treasure hidden by Magellan’s crew, there’s still plenty of Uncharted to get through, but because the film can’t commit to a focus or a tone, it continues to feel much longer than it actually is all throughout.
Uncharted doesn’t really want you to think about why Sully and other hunters like Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) and Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) are only able to finally start getting leads once Nathan shows up even though they’ve all been hunting for this specific treasure for ages. The movie also doesn’t especially want you to notice the fact that none of the puzzle solving or clue hunting that Nathan himself does appear to be very difficult or clever. What Uncharted does want, though, is to give you the feeling of being whisked away to gorgeous, foreign locales, where no one takes much of an issue with folks showing up to hack away at valuable pieces of history.
The Uncharted franchise has its merits and isn’t just Tomb Raider for Men™, but that’s definitely the impression one could take away from this film for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, its apparent allergy to developing female characters beyond being quippy prizes for its male leads to lust after. Uncharted’s greatest sin, however, is the sureness with which it presents you with the potential for future installments — installments this movie’s ending neither earns nor warrants.
Uncharted also stars Antonio Banderas, Steven Waddington, and Pingi Moli and hits theaters on February 18th.