There is no question that Tom Holland is the YA heartthrob du jour. If his Spider-Man box office draw were not sufficient proof, the repeated shirtless shots of him in his new film Uncharted should convince you. But popularity does not always translate into effective cinema, and here, Holland’s undeniable charm and comedic timing aren’t enough to rescue this videogame adaptation from becoming lost in a sea of movie clichés that always seem to infect adventure films modeled after the Indiana Jones series.
Uncharted opens with a gravity-defying sequence that involves the open sea, flying cargo, and a speeding plane. One thing becomes immediately obvious about the film, which hails from Venom director Ruben Fleischer — when it comes to visual effects, it is ‘go big or go home.’ The camera work by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung aids the VFX well enough, creating both surreal as well as hyperreal sensations. The camera tricks are gravity-defying and even nauseating to some extent, particularly since the film features a lot of falling. Suffice to say that Uncharted is something of a visual wonder, one that will inspire both awe and fear in audiences, and remind even the most reticent ticket buyers that there still are reasons to go to the multiplex.
The film’s grandiose ambitions do not end with CGI, of course. Physical stuntwork and kinetic acrobatics play a significant part here as well. In that opening sequence, Holland’s Nate Drake jumps, skips, punches, climbs, and runs. Later on, Fleischer visually explains Nate’s implausible physicality by showing a shirtless Holland strengthening his upper body and flexing his bulging muscles. After all, why ask audiences to suspend their disbelief when the point is to construct a real, believable action hero, no spider bites necessary.
But, it soon becomes apparent that for all of its moviemaking magic, Uncharted really is just smoke and mirrors. Why did the film begin with that scene in the first place, as it turns out to be a spot in the narrative that arrives roughly two-thirds of the way through? The answer is never given. I guess Sony just wanted this movie to start with a bang. Instead, that exciting first sequence gives way to a 15-year-old flashback, wherein the younger Nate recalls exploratory adventures with his brother, Sam. Fast-forward to the present day, when Nate is a slick-talking, fast-moving NYC bartender, and Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a seasoned fortune hunter, shows up asking Nate to help him find Magellan’s lost gold, the same loot that Nate and his brother used to fantasize about. You see, Nate Drake is of the Sir Francis variety, and though he has done no adventuring for years beyond picking the pockets of enamored young ladies, he is somehow prepared and ready for this job.
Written by Iron Man scribes Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, the ambitious screenplay spans multiple continents and eras, introducing Antonio Banderas as the film’s principal foil, Sebastian Moncada, who like our young hero, is also of a centuries-old lineage. Sophia Ali flutters in and out of the proceedings as Chloe Frazer, a mysterious adventuress who Sully repeatedly warns Nate not to trust, resulting in some predictable consequences. Tati Gabrielle is the film’s acting highlight, as she portrays dangerous vixen Jo Braddock, who is entrusted by Moncada to ruin Nate and Sully’s little treasure hunt.
The clichés begin to pile up quickly from that point on. Sully repeatedly warns Nate not to trust anyone in the con artist world they inhabit and then repeatedly betrays him. Chloe does the same, and the three of them engage in a game of backstabbings and double-crossings that becomes so predictable and uninteresting that it takes the “fool me once, fool me twice” saying to a whole new level. Of course, beneath the persistently traitorous facades of these characters lie hearts of solid gold, shining as bright as the ingots they’re after. The most hackneyed part of this unoriginal exercise — the predictable conclusion to the adventure — can be seen miles away and without a map, which puts a damper on the movie-watching experience.
Worst still, Uncharted travails well-known trails at almost every intermediate stop between origin and destination. To be fair, Holland and Wahlberg share a kind of father-son chemistry and their connection is most evident while exchanging some well-placed jokes that are made more effective by Holland’s believably innocent demeanor and Wahlberg’s sarcastic, deadpan growl. Unfortunately for them, the very creation of their relationship is cliched and, therefore, it ultimately lacks much substance.
The same goes for the sweeping vistas and the different sets that the duo visits. The scope of the proceedings — from New York to Barcelona to the Philippines — feels very Da Vinci Code. Just picture that film starring a young James Bond or Indiana Jones Jr. Unfortunately, the search for a long-lost treasure sprinkled with some family drama and a few amusing chuckles simply does not cut it anymore on the big screen, especially in comparison to those iconic franchises.
Fundamentally, it is a shame that Uncharted’s creators did not pay as much attention to the screenplay as they did to the breathtaking special effects. The latter, combined with the appealing Tom Holland’s star power, should’ve been enough to lure audiences back to theaters, but moviegoers are also smart enough to smell Uncharted‘s groan-inducing script a mile away. There are 25 James Bond films available to watch at home with your family for less than the price of a single movie ticket, so why bother with what’s essentially a YA remake that breaks no new ground?
The very title of Uncharted would seem to invite audiences on a journey to a place heretofore unexplored, untraveled, and unknown. For this movie to turn its back on that promise is a fatal error that is simply too hard to overlook for this critic.
Uncharted hits theaters on Feb. 18 courtesy of Sony Pictures.