To paraphrase the all-wise Joni Mitchell, sometimes we don’t fully appreciate something until it’s taken away from us. A few minutes into Uncharted, I began to yearn for the laws of physics. It wasn’t much longer before I missed hearing dialogue that resembled something inhabitants of this planet might actually say to each other. After the freewheeling brilliance of Everything Everywhere All at Once, I gained an even deeper appreciation for plot twists that don’t become obvious thirty minutes before they happen. I suppose that’s the curse of great movies: They make cinematic dead fish like Uncharted smell that much stinkier.
It wasn’t even a slight surprise to find out this movie was based on a beloved video game. In fact, most of the cardboard James Bond-ian banter sounds pulled from rickety PS3 cutscenes that drone while I’m rummaging for Mt. Dews in the fridge. The story begins at 18,000 feet, as Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) clings to a twisting net of cargo rope, swinging wildly from the open bay door of a KC-10. Drake tangles with a few bad guys, then leaps forward to climb back aboard the plane. Yes–at 500mph, three miles in the air, he JUMPS FORWARD. Sweet Jesus in a bean field–Daffy and Bugs adhere closer to reality than this. Whatever world this movie is set on, it definitely ain’t Earth.
Anyway. Somewhere in the midst of this middle finger to gravity, we flash back. It’s now about ought-five, and two plucky orphan brothers dream of being treasure hunters. Sam Drake (Rudy Pankow) wows kid brother Nathan (Tiernan Jones) with tales of Ferdinand Magellan’s shipwreck, which is supposed to be loaded with billions in bullion. The boys make it their life’s mission to find the gold and be rich beyond all imagination. That’s a little weird for two 21st century kids, but whatever. When they get nabbed for petty theft, Sam escapes, but not before making a solemn promise to return.
Cut back to now. Nathan has grown up to be a bartender in Manhattan. He offers friendly badinage to the clientele, mainly so he can get them hammered and pick their pockets. Enter Victory “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg). Sully quickly catches on to Nathan’s scheme, and throws him a job offer: That’s right, kids! Magellan’s treasure is real, and it’s spectacular. Sully claims he can only find it with Nathan’s help. At first, Nathan balks, mainly because the screenwriters probably took a couple classes and realize they need a little artificial tension here. Give it a couple scenes, and…poof! We’re off on the adventure of a lifetime. Gee willakers, I wonder what happens next?!
Turns out, our saucy heroes aren’t the only ones seeking this here buried gold. Ol’ Sully and What’s-His-Name quickly run afoul of a sordid cast of characters. In true 007 fashion, the film presents us with a Good Girl with Bad Intentions, and a Bad Girl with Good Intentions. As an audience, we’re expected to suss out who’s who. In one corner, we’ve got Jo (Tati Gabrielle), an ass-kicking mercenary who has a murky history with Sully. Across the way, there’s Chloe, an ass-kicking treasure hunter who has a murky history with…Sully, I guess? That’s some real adventurous screenwriting there, guys. The real pickle is whether or not you’ll care about any of these people.
On the subject of not caring, Antonio Banderas snoozes through the underwritten role of Santiago Moncada, the rightful heir to Magellan’s loot. Aside from banal dialogue and boring motivation, the only thing he really needs is a mustache to twirl. Seriously, there were silent movie villains with more depth. And I think the filmmakers gave him a sour relationship with his father? I can’t quite say for sure: My eyes were drifting in two different directions at this point.
Let’s see if I can reduce this movie down to its individual ingredients: Take one part of discount Indiana Jones. Two cups from 007’s compost bin. (That opening gets ripped right from The Living Daylights, which was made thirty-five years ago and still looks more realistic.) Stir in Tomb Raider to taste, and garnish with The Goonies.
That probably sounds like a winning recipe. After all, those sources are delightful. Unfortunately, Uncharted is missing a huge secret ingredient–panache. Like a robot playing the violin, this film may hit all the notes, but everything still feels charmless and hollow. There’s just an unknowable magic to legitimate creative inspiration, and no amount of Xeroxing can duplicate it.
Despite the high cinematic crimes committed in this enterprise, I’ll go out of my way to exonerate Tom Holland. As if Spider-Man: No Way Home left any doubt, the guy’s a bona fide movie star. Holland brings real humor and dramatic heft to what would otherwise be a cartoon character. That makes it even more frustrating to see him sink with the rest of Uncharted. As for Wahlberg, he does what he can with an undernourished Alan Quartermaine/Thomas Crown role. He doesn’t play suave very well, but even Sean Connery and Steve McQueen combined would struggle to get this Spruce Goose off the ground.
Some might argue this movie should be graded differently because it’s based on a video game. The physics are supposed to be janky; the story should be fantastical. My response? Avengers: Endgame was genuine Oscar snub for Best Picture, and that was about a purple monster with a magic glove. It’s all in the execution. Uncharted gives us clunky, expository dialogue and special effects so real they look fake. In the end, the makers of this film waste gobs of money and a bankable star, only to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
116 min. PG-13. On Demand.