Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Uncharted’ Gets Lost Even With a Map

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Uncharted is a movie based on a video game but also has the distinction of just being based. It is a remarkable film in which everyone in front and behind the camera is technically competent, but no one’s heart is in any of it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such an aggressive exercise in laissez-faire mediocrity.

Ruben Fleischer has made what may very well be a faithful adaptation of the popular videogame. I don’t know. I’ve never played it. However, I only hope the video game is more fun and engaging than its cinematic counterpart. To Fleischer’s credit, Uncharted looks gorgeous, thanks to Chung Chung-hoon, his cameraman.

Tom Holland as Nathan Drake in a not so death-defying stunt

But the problem with Uncharted isn’t that it looks good; it’s that it’s all it does. Tom Holland as Nathan Drake may look the part, but he seems lost in the actual role. Mark Wahlberg as Sully would seem a good fit, but he seems to be phoning it in. None of the leads has any chemistry with each other. At times Uncharted felt like a photographed rehearsal.

Early in the movie, Holland’s Drake is sifting through a trunk filled with his long-lost brother’s belongings. He opens the trunk, and we see a Boston Red Sox jersey next to some Yankees paraphernalia. This hilarious misunderstanding of human nature is hardly the worst thing about Uncharted, but it is an omen of things to come. 

It’s all downhill from here.

The script, so-called, by Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway, is made up of scenes that might be interesting if we had context or if characters had traits that went beyond that they used to sleep with each other. Uncharted moves along as if the writers took all the cut scenes that people skipped and tried to make them cinematic. The movie fundamentally misunderstands the difference between cinema and video games to the point that the dialogue sounds like the type one might hear in a game but doesn’t work when you have real flesh and blood actors-regardless of how chiseled they are.

Sophia Ali and Holland looking for clues

Things happen in Uncharted because they must happen. To some extent, this is fine. But neither Fleischer, the writers, nor the actors ever try to do anything with the material as given. As a result, it is a movie without context or any sense of a world recognizable to our own. Uncharted feels like a group of people seeing an easy paycheck and to sit through a movie like that during an ongoing pandemic is borderline offensive.

If you’ve seen any treasure hunting movie before then, you’ve seen Uncharted. Suffice to say here it is five billion dollars worth of Spanish gold said to be hidden by Magellan’s crew as he sailed around the world. I do not doubt that the game is an homage or inspired by countless adventure movies, which may work well for the game, but in a multi-million dollar movie, you need to have an adventure, not just repeat things you’ve seen done in other films. Unfortunately, even the puzzle-solving aspect, which seems like a significant part of the game, feels tepid and lazy in the movie.

There are countless scenes in which Sully, Nathan, and Chloe (Sophia Ali) stand around an ancient ruin only to have Holland toss off a solution to a puzzle we never knew needed solving. Uncharted is a major blockbuster with zero clue how to draw in an audience, set up a scene, or even entertain. It just lays there on the screen like a two-hour-long dying fish flopping around.

Part of the anger I felt at Uncharted came from the flashes of promise throughout the film. Whatever chemistry that may be lacking between Whalberg and Holland is more than present between Holland and Ali. Their scenes have a spark that seems to be lacking in the rest of the movie. Except Ali has nothing to do, which in a movie like Uncharted, is saying something. Granted, no one has anything to do, no arcs, nothing. But in a film filled with people with nothing to do, Ali has less to work with than most.

The only character given less than Ali is Tati Gabrielle’s, Jo Braddock. A character whose only trait is that she used to sleep with the Mark Wahlberg character. I know this because the writers seem incapable of letting a scene go by without Gabrielle or Whalberg mentioning it. 

Tati Gabrielle trying her best

But then there is Antonio Banderas as the evil scheming Santiago Moncada. Banderas is the one actor to understand the assignment, as they say. Oily and sinister Banderas is so good it’s a shame he’s not in the movie more. He is everything Uncharted is not, fun.

Watching Uncharted, I felt that Nathan Drake is a bit of a rogue. But to be a rogue, you have to be kind of a dick. Holland doesn’t have it in him to make the audience, not like him-he must have our praise. Holland is a likable actor and a charismatic presence, but his problem is that he doesn’t understand how to be a likable heel. He doesn’t even know how to not be likable.   

He’s unable to give us the jagged edge or play the bad boy. Even the scenes of him without his shirt, ripped torso dripping with either sweat or ocean water, seems oddly sanitized and asexual. He’s not sexy because despite the copious amount of flesh in Uncharted, to paraphrase Steven Soderbergh, I find it hard to believe anyone in this movie even knows what sex is. An ironic paradox because the characters constantly flirt, leer, ogle, and talk about sex, and at one point even share a bed. Yet, at no point do any of them appear to understand the mechanics of the matter.

I’m sure there’s a lot of fanservice in Uncharted. One scene has Nate and Chloe emerging from the ocean onto a beach resort where a man waves to them and tells them he’s been where they are. No cash prizes for guessing it’s Nolan North, the voice of Drake in the games. An actor who looks like he might have been a better fit than the charming Holland.

Tom Holland meets Antonio Banderas

At one point, the characters are in Spain and try and locate the lost gold of Magellan’s fateful trip. It’s part of the plot, and one of the only things the movie cares about, except the characters don’t talk about it with awe and wonder but merely rattle it off as if it’s the dialogue you want to skip but need to hear. Holland and Ali soon discover the ancient underground antechamber is now a renovated rave bar with a Papa John’s built over it.

I laughed at that. That was clever. These moments in which Uncharted allowed reality to burst into the film unexpectedly added little flickers of life in a movie dead on arrival. I mean, come on, seeing Mark Whalberg having to trash a Pappa Johns so he can get to the keyhole to save Holland and Ali, who are drowning beneath him and next to the underground rave club that had a secret entrance and exit? 

That’s pretty cool.

I wish the movie had more things like that and less of the hermetically sealed action scenes that looked nice but did little to engage me or nudge me towards the edge of my seat. But, for crying out loud, there’s a climactic mid-air dog fight involving two industrial helicopters with full-size Spanish Galleons suspended from wires swinging about over the forest treetops, and I found myself mildly amused.

Unfortunately, these flashes of promise are all too brief. The fight scene between Holland and the nameless henchmen behind the bar as Ali tries to solve the puzzle was nice but highlighted how rote all the other action scenes were before and after. Also, if you notice, I tend to use the actor’s name rather than the characters because none of these people are playing characters with motivations or desires.

There’s no life, no fun, no nothing in all of Uncharted. Even the scene on the plane, which includes a moment that I legit did not see coming, feels flat. Look, I’m not demanding cinema veritas here, but Whalberg’s reaction to finding four to five billion dollars worth of gold is laughably underwhelming. Of course, it doesn’t help that the gold is some of the cheapest looking gold I’ve seen in a blockbuster in a long time. 

The fact that Uncharted looks gorgeous is another poke in the eye by the filmmakers. Some scenes took place in underground caverns and inside caves, and I could see what was happening. Uncharted is a well-shot and well-lit movie.

Except I didn’t care because the set design was dull, and Chung-hoon’s camera can only do so much. The mid-air action scene teased so proudly by the studio in the trailer is lifeless in the movie. The action scenes, while well photographed, have no weight because most of them are CGI or green-screened. It is possible to do impressive stunts using computers; other films have done so before, but Uncharted can’t be bothered to take the time to give us stakes.

I often say movies are like magic tricks, and they are. But sometimes they are like professional wrestling in which you have the face and the heel, and their job is to get the audience riled up to cheer and boo, and then some action happens. Unfortunately, Uncharted is neither a magic trick nor a wrestling match, professional or amateur. 

But a movie that posits a character who is both a Red Sox fan AND a Yankees fan doesn’t have the guts to get the audience excited. That would involve some understanding of how people think and feel. Instead, Uncharted is a movie so timid it can’t even take sides in a centuries-long baseball rivalry. 

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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