Why Uncharted Can Succeed Where Other Video Game Adaptions Haven’t

Here’s a fun exercise: go to any search engine and type “Best Big Screen Video Game Adaptations” and peruse the lists that pop up. Would you believe that Sonic the Hedgehog consistently ranks in the top ten? Along with the recent Tomb Raider with Alicia Vikander (which scored just over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes), that cheesy 1995 Mortal Kombat flick, and even 1993’s Super Mario Bros., which has over the last five years suddenly become everyone’s favorite 90s action film?

That’s the state of big-screen video game adaptations, which continue to squander big-name titles like Resident Evil, Prince of Persia, and Doom despite the seemingly endless cinematic possibilities each presents.

Part of the problem lies with the medium. How do you transfer one visual style to another without seeming redundant? A direct translation typically leaves casual audiences in the dust — see 2010’s big-budget Prince of Persia — while a complete reimagining alienates fans of the games, ala 2005’s Doom, starring The Rock and Karl Urban. In either case, you’re forcing directors, writers, actors, and creative artists to replicate something many people have already seen. The results are often stilted, even if the visual cues and homages are spot on.

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So, now we come to Uncharted, a film based on the extremely successful video game chronicling the many adventures of treasure hunters Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, played by Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, respectively. We recently got our first real look at the film and so far online reactions have been … ah … good-ish, with some praising the film for looking just like the game and others complaining that it differs too much from the game.

Here’s the movie trailer in case you missed it:

Then for visual reference, here’s the trailer to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End:

I’m a huge fan of the Uncharted series. In fact, I’m replaying them right now on my PS4. What always strikes me is how engrossing the story and characters are. Most of the game is of the crouch and shoot variety, but all the painstaking platforming, swinging, fighting and often frustrating gameplay are worth it because Nathan Drake and Co. are such a fun group of characters to hang around with, brought to life via excellent voice actors and solid dialogue. You genuinely want to see where their latest adventure takes us.

Now, the film has gone through production hell since it was first announced way back in 2008. A handful of directors jumped on board, including the renowned David O. Russell, who planned to rework the characters into a story that was more to his liking — a family of treasure hunters led by Mark Wahlberg’s Nathan Drake and featuring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. Fans balked at the notion, and eventually, Russell was replaced by Neil Burger, then Seth Gordon, then Shawn Levy, then Dan Trachtenberg, then Travis Knight … even Joe Carnahan was brought on board to punch up the script at one point, so sacred was this big-budget project.

Finally, Sony Pictures tapped Ruben Fleischer, who eventually helmed the final product.

Personally, I think the film looks good and has a chance to succeed where so many others have failed. Obviously, we’re only judging from a two-minute trailer, but from everything I’ve seen thus far, it looks as though Fleischer has struck the right balance between direct-game adaptation and big-screen reimagining.

For starters, the casting is decidedly unique. Tom Holland is certainly not the first name that comes to mind when I think of Nathan Drake; while he sports the outfits and wiseass quips, the actor looks like he’s going for a fresh new (Peter Parker-heavy) spin on the character. Which, when you think about it, is actually quite smart on behalf of the producers.

Think of it this way: we have four 20+ hour Uncharted video games featuring a specific iteration of Drake. Seeing that character on the big screen would be nice, sure, but, if we’re being honest, also unnecessary. The Uncharted video game series ended with A Thief’s End. We saw Drake’s story play out and received a fitting epilogue that featured the treasure hunter enjoying the spoils of war.

Does the studio completely reboot the series on the big screen via a direct adaptation that copies the stories and set pieces we’ve already seen, which would be the equivalent of watching someone else play Uncharted 1-4, or continue Drake’s story beyond A Thief’s End, in which case you have a character with a storied history roughly 15 million people know about — a big number sure, but not compared to the 330 million people in the U.S. or seven billion people around the world? (Consider also that an estimated 100 million people saw Avengers: Endgame during its opening weekend and gamers should understand why video game adaptations present such a challenge beyond catering to the population that played the game.) Or does the studio start fresh with a completely different take that repackages the characters and basic setup of the game into a more generic, though still entertaining, product?

If you were a studio head, would you rather cast Nathan Fillion in a role specifically because he looks like a character from a video game that, again, general audiences aren’t aware of, or would you rather have that kid currently starring in a billion-dollar Spider-Man franchise?

Likewise, Mark Wahlberg doesn’t even look like he’s trying to channel the Sully gamers know and love from the game, but, honestly, that’s probably okay because he’s Mark Wahlberg, one of the most high-profile stars ever featured in a video game adaptation. I love that Wahlberg wears a wife-beater, sports enormous pecs, and looks about as far removed from the cigar-chewing, gut-packing Sully of the video game as possible. (In hindsight, Wahlberg certainly fits the part of Drake, making that aborted David O. Russell project all the more upsetting.)

RELATED: Sony Announces State of Play for Next Week

In other words, the cast actually makes me want to see this more. If done correctly, there’s a chance Holland and Wahlberg’s takes on Drake and Sully surpass those made famous by voice actors Nolan North and Richard McGonagle — it’s a stretch, but you never know.

On top of that, the action looks terrific. The plane sequence, taken from Uncharted 3, I think, looks like a fun callback that still does enough to merit standalone value. I loved the shot of Drake swinging on the lights in that blue-tinted nightclub, and dig the exotic locales, namely Valencia, Spain, and the coastal town of Xàbia.

Basically, this looks enough like Uncharted to satisfy my inner geek, but different enough to pique my interest. Unlike, say, Doom, which turned a pretty radical one-man-versus Hell action-adventure game into a generic zombie movie starring The Rock, or Prince of Persia which basically copy and pasted the game on the big screen and clearly overestimated the entertainment value of its source material, Uncharted looks like it strikes that perfect balance between the two mediums and should make for an exciting weekend at the movies.

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