Before Nathan Drake was a stubbly, world-weary treasure hunter who’d raided his share of tombs and knew his way around a puzzle-heavy, peril-filled PlayStation 3 RPG, he was just another twentysomething dude in New York. You know the type: looks like a movie star, likes to flip bottles while mixing cocktails, excellent at pickpocketing and parkour, has a missing older brother and a chip on his shoulder. He’s also got a deep interest in Magellan, as so many young people do these days, as well as the rumors that the explorer stashed a heap of gold somewhere while traveling around the world. His sibling, Sam, was obsessed enough to go searching for it, in fact. But a long period of radio silence suggests that something has happened to Nathan’s kin.
Then into his life walks Victor “Sully” Sullivan, a father figure who might help this orphan find his only family member. It turns out that Sully and Sam went looking for Magellan’s gold together before the latter went M.I.A.; if Nate needs to aid him in locating the loot, they can track down his brother. Their quest will be filled with allies, archnemeses, evil billionaires, double crosses, hot pursuits, some globetrotting, and a knock-down drag-out fight in a Papa John’s in Barcelona, because why not? For gamers, these names and the promise of action set pieces brimming with the mashing of triangles, squares, R1’s, Xs and Os — translation: running, jumping, parsing clues and fast-and-furious-combo fights — may be thrilling. Everybody else may simply feel a strange sense of deja vu. We’ve been here, in this extremely well-mapped-out multiplex territory, hundreds of times before.
Part intellectual-property barrel-scraping, part pumped-up star vehicle and part fumbling bid for Sony to cross media-revenue streams, Uncharted isn’t the worst attempt to bring a beloved video game to the screen — just the latest bit of evidence that these things are really a zero-sum game. It does start out on a high, or more accurately, about 20,000 feet high: our young Drake (played by Tom Holland) is introduced hanging by a strap to a series of cargo boxes dangling out of an airplane. It’s one of the stand-out missions in Uncharted 3, and director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) stages it like he’s dropping viewers into en media res gameplay, with Holland leaping from container to container, ducking giant flying objects, avoiding bullets and thugs as he tries making it back into the holding area. It’s a lovely opening salvo of well-paced chaos, and establishes this future adventurer-to-be as someone who hasn’t quite mastered the hero gig just yet. When he finally makes it back on board, Drake is immediately hit by an unmoored sports car and tumbles right back into the clear blue sky. This is what most people would characterize as a promising start.
And then…everything immediately settles into what feels like a series of exposition-heavy cut scenes, occasionally braking for manic bits of recycled derring-do, nudges and nods to die-hards and 1,001 references to other, better blockbusters. The fact that Holland is not just a newly mintable movie star but also a graceful, highly athletic one — and happens to be in another Sony-owned property at the moment — means that the company’s getting their money’s worth, and viewed from the perspective of pitching the 25-year-old as not just a superhero but a 21st century action-flick swashbuckler, this prequel to the PS3 series works better as an audition reel than a franchise starter.
As for the sound and the CGI flurry surrounding Holland, he’s more or less broad-shouldering the burden of this I.P. cashgrab on his own. No longer the gray-haired, guayabera-wearing mentor from the games, the slightly younger Sully is played by Mark Wahlberg, whose demeanor is completely wrong for the part. (His entire performance can be summed up as: I’m the one trying to get rich off a lot of lost treasure. You must be the other guy.) Antonio Banderas is the de rigeur villain with an accent, and simply proves that while Spanish ham is indeed delicious, it tends to lose its flavor when lazily slapped on top of leftovers. Grey’s Anatomy‘s Sophia Ali and The 100‘s Tati Gabrielle get slotted in to the respective gorgeous companion/fellow pirate-booty hunter and gorgeous henchwoman/assassin roles. They both deserve a lot better. So do Uncharted fanatics, for that matter.
Video games are an active form of entertainment. Peruse the graveyard of attempts at rejiggering canon-worthy titles for a passive medium while trying to retain what makes them great, but without just delivering live-action character cosplay, and you’ll find it’s littered with corpses. The Uncharted games were great at letting players shoot, slide, sprint and scale their way through an old-fashioned adventure movie. Something — everything — gets lost in translation here. Sony very much wants to trade on the brand recognition of a PlayStation staple. The longer you watch them put Holland through his Drake paces, however, the more you feel like they wish they could get away with calling this Tomb Raiders of the Lost National Treasure of the Caribbean, Starring Spider-Man. It’s a second-generation copy of someone else’s static-y greatest-hits compilation. You’re better off watching old walkthrough clips.