This past weekend saw a very respectable debut of the Sony Pictures film Uncharted, starring Tom Holland, for a box office of $44.1M, but the question of the hour that’s on everyone’s lips is simple: did the movie live up to the hype?
It’s no secret that Uncharted is a movie with a storied and nuanced history: not only did it spend about a decade in development hell, but the official film was, in some ways, eclipsed by a fan film that preceded it. The fan film, which starred Nathan Fillion as title character Nathan Drake, was so well received it spurred a campaign by fans to have him cast in the lead of the official picture. There is also, of course, the fact that the official film features a significantly younger version of Drake and Drake’s mentor, Victor Sullivan.
So, with all of these factors in play, there are three major questions to answer about the film, and judging its appeal to both sides of its audience: game fans and the mainstream public.
- Was the film worth the wait?
- Does it rise above the beloved fan film?
- How does it measure up alongside the game?
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Was the film worth the wait?
Short answer? It depends. Long answer?
It depends…on what you expect to see.
With over ten years in development hell, countless script revisions and rewrites, and no less than six different directors having come and gone from the film, it was inevitable that something was going to suffer. Add to this the fact that many films inspired by video games have a history of tanking at the box office, and you have a recipe for disaster. The fact is, it’s a miracle that this film ever made it into post-production, much less into theaters.
So was it worth ten years wait? No, it wasn’t — to be blunt, if you remove the element of the video game, this film did suffer. There is nothing to set this apart as anything revolutionary that would compensate for the lengthy development process. The script is even a little off-putting in that every female character is a villain in some degree.
Seeing this film as a nonbinary woman*, I found nothing overtly offensive about this fact: having never played the game myself, but having familiarized myself with some surface details of the characters, I understand it. The sisters of the orphanage were Nathan Drake grew up were antagonists in the games — vaguely stereotypical Catholic nuns, but their portrayal wasn’t totally mean spirited. The character of Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) was a well written, if superficial villain, capable and neither divested of nor exploitative of her femininity. Even Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali) is written as a sympathetic antagonist, less truly corrupt and more flawed, more human and damaged by a troubled past that I related to with painful intensity, with no consideration for gender.
And yet, there are no other women in this movie to serve even as an innocuous presence. There were at least two canon game characters that could have been introduced or mentioned in passing to offer even an attempt at balance without bloating the film or otherwise changing it enormously from the movie I saw. These two characters from the game were nowhere to be found. It’s guys being heroes, and it’s fairly blatant, enough so to be immediately noticeable and a little irksome.
However, there is one saving grace to this film that saves it from getting an entirely negative review from this particular reporter: the quality.
Was it worth the ten year wait? No, absolutely not. Is it worth seeing? Yes, it absolutely is.
Despite the movie’s odd slant, it’s a good solid story with a satisfying ending, humor, action, and a protagonist that’s likable without being stereotypical. Even game fans will see some solid evidence of the Nathan Drake they know in Tom Holland’s portrayal of his younger incarnation: the dry humor, the less than ethical world view, and the razor sharp intellect. Say what you will about the casting of a younger Drake: if it was going to happen, without question Holland wasn’t just cast because he’s a hot commodity thanks to his involvement in the MCU. He brought an important part of Drake to life on screen, turning what could have been a huge flop into a solid popcorn flick that game fans can find merit in, and mainstream audiences can embrace as a worthy part of the Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones inspired film genre.
Does Uncharted rise above the fan film?
Rise above? No. Equal? Not quite. Survive? Barely.
In the 2018 fan film starring Nathan Fillion as Drake, Stephen Lang as Victor Sullivan, and Mircea Monroe as featured game character Elena Fisher, they tell a brief but rich story torn directly from the minds at Naughty Dog, the game company that created the original franchise. While the official film gives a barely noticeable nod to its roots with a less than one second glimpse of a Naughty Dog sticker in Drake’s trunk on screen, the fan film pays homage to the Uncharted franchise in all the ways that matter: it tells a unique story, it has casting few fans have criticized since the film was released, and it shows a clear investment in the original property.
The official film, on the other hand, tells a solid story — not altogether original, but a story that fits the franchise and feels necessary given the conceit of the film as a prequel. However, the two main characters: Sullivan and Drake, were cast with little regard for the originals. Granted, during its ten year birthing process, Mark Wahlberg was initially favored to play Nathan Drake, but may have actually aged out of the role. Fillion, who originally campaigned for the role, bears a wonderful resemblance to Drake, but Wahlberg could have been a very suitable alternative had things gone a different way.
As for investment in the original, the film is significantly lacking. While there is at least one post credits scene that seems designed to cater to game fans, it very much feels like an afterthought. While director Ruben Fleischer has shared impassioned comments on the scene and his desire to acknowledge the game franchise for its fans, it would have been nice if his very earnest respect for game fans had been shared with the original screenwriters.
How does the film measure up alongside the game?
I should lead this with a reminder that I have not, in fact, played the game. Before seeing the movie, I did do some reading on the main characters, and I have seen the fan film more than once. While I did not go in entirely blind to the game, I was very much one of the mainstream consumers that would make up a good deal of a typical audience for this movie.
The story was solid. The casting was questionable. What I found most lacking, however, and what might be sorely lacking for game fans, would be the characterizations.
Without spoiling the film, one major character point I was looking forward to was the mentorship between Sullivan and Drake. This was totally absent in Uncharted. It was referenced, it was implied, but it barely shows up by the end of the film, and in what I feel were all the wrong ways. Something else that’s purely a matter of personal preference on my part, Sullivan was decidedly lacking compared to the somewhat curmudgeonly figure I had read about and glimpsed in gameplay footage. I have a soft spot for such characters, and the vague nods to that in the movie came off less as curmudgeonly and more as manipulative or whiny.
As for Drake? To be honest, while Holland does a fine job with what he was given, what he was given felt off. Having seen Drake described as being morally ambiguous or dragged into virtue over the course of the franchise, Drake felt just a touch too wholesome at the end of the day. Sure, he’s wily and not altogether honest, but he’s given a level of moral fiber I would more closely ascribe to Holland’s other major role, that of Peter Parker. It’s all in how he’s written, however, and between the two lead actors of this movie, I have to honestly say that Holland does far better than Wahlberg in trying to balance out the writing and the acting in Uncharted.
So, the final verdict on Uncharted? It’s definitely worth your time, however you choose to see it. While my viewing was on a conventional movie theater screen, I can only imagine how this movie would look in IMAX or sound like in Dolby Digital. Truthfully, I’m almost tempted to find out with a second viewing.
Will I go out of my way to seek it out? Probably not, but I’m glad I saw Uncharted, and I would still recommend that you do the same. Uncharted isn’t for the hardcore game fan, but if you just want to have a great time at the movies? You’ll deprive yourself of some good, clean fun if you miss it.
* The writer is assigned female at birth, but identifies as nonbinary with the use of she/her/he/him pronouns. Rather than an experience divorced from the gender binary, hers is a blended experience that waxes or wanes, and while he is comfortable with being identified as either side of the binary, she self identifies as a man or woman as befits her level of comfort.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.