Almost all videogame movies are crap, goes the general sentiment. Since the early 1990s popular cinema has been littered with the corpses of failed blockbusters, murdered by audiences after being poorly equipped and armed by numerous production companies, studios, and producers. From Super Mario Bros in 1993 to Resident Evil Afterlife in 2010, critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave videogame movies an average score of 16 per cent.
Things have improved in the last decade or so. In part, videogame movies honestly seem to be getting better. It is also thanks to videogames embracing narrative in much more sophisticated ways, and thus providing more complex source material for the films. Videogames have, more or less, gradually become more cinematic. It’s that specific trend that has brought us to Uncharted. It is a Sony franchise of action games – four to date, released between 2007 and 2017 – that actively imitate their feature film equivalents. They boast complex, movie-like action sequences and chase scenes. They feature engaging characters with extensive vocal and motion-captured performances by professional actors. The dialogue is as snappy and amusing as any theatrical tentpole. With videogame movies showing more and more success – Rampage (2018), Detective Pikachu (2019), Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), and Mortal Kombat (2021) have all found commercial audiences – it absolutely makes sense for Sony to adapt their own videogame into an all-new feature film.
It is important to stress that Ruben Fleischer’s film of Uncharted is a servicable work. Tom Holland plays professional thief Nathan “Nate” Drake who, on the promise of finding his missing brother, teams up with treasure hunter Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to track down the lost gold of Ferdinand Magellan. On the way they come up against rival thief Chloe Frazer (Sophia Taylor Ali), rich dilletante Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), and the lethal mercenary Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle). The film is a stock standard treasure hunt: the protagonists follow a trail of clues around the world that should eventually lead them to their prize. It is a well-worn genre convention, one peppered with a variety of action scenes, and situates Uncharted in a familiar echelon of semi-standard action vehicles including National Treasure (2004), Angels & Demons (2009), and any number of Tomb Raider adaptations (2001, 2003, 2018). None of these are bad films, but neither are they memorable ones. They do their job sufficiently but not tremendously. They are cookie-cutter time-fillers for which the description “oh, it’s fine” seems purposefully created. If you are after a relatively generic action-adventure, Uncharted probably fits the bill – although a Marvel-like reliance on digital effects does let down its larger action sequences.
Here is the underlying problem. Uncharted the film is okay, but Uncharted the game franchise is great. Really quite genuinely and remarkably great. It is the tightest fusion of game and feature film the global entertainment industry has accomplished. Games have pushed narratives for some decades now, usually in a blend of non-interactive cut scene, followed by gameplay, then another cut scene, then gameplay, and so on. Beginning with the second game in particular, Uncharted simply blended the two. Characters would talk and advance the plot while the player engaged with the game. Cut scenes and gameplay blended into one another. The dialogue was Hollywood-quality and well-performed, and the key action sequences were wonderfully sophisticated and jaw-dropping their ambition. They remain to date, at least in my opinion, the closest that games have come to being playable movies.
This is the core of the film Uncharted‘s failure. As a film in general it is perfectly watchable, if perfunctory. Specifically as a film of Uncharted it is simply not as good as Uncharted already is. Many fans and critics have judged it as a bad movie, but honestly it is worse than that: it’s a redundant one.
In theatres it made a profit, so it is likely that Sony will push for a sequel. Next time around, however, they really need to try harder. Either that, or just let the audience play the next one on Playstation 5 instead.