The film adaptation of Uncharted has been a long time coming. Sony originally started developing the project in 2008, shortly after the first game in the series launched. The film was passed between directors, producers, and casts for over a decade. As gamers would say, it was stuck in “development hell.”
In retrospect, it might have been a blessing in disguise. The game series quickly matured after its first entry, surpassing some of the blockbusters that inspired it. Deep characters, a riveting story, and jaw-dropping set pieces turned it into the poster child for “cinematic” video games. That gave Sony much more to work with when it finally locked down what would become the final cast and crew in 2020.
Uncharted, which finally hits theaters on February 18, now has the tricky task of getting players excited about a movie adaptation of a game series that in many ways has already topped Hollywood films. For director Ruben Fleischer, who I spoke to ahead of the film’s release, that meant knowing when to stick to the source material and when to part from it. Luckily, he had a superfan on set to help: Star Tom Holland.
Adapting a film-inspired game
When the Venom director originally came onto the project in 2020, he had only played the first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. As soon as he got the gig, he played through the rest of the series, with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End becoming his favorite. He notes that the car chase in that title is his favorite car chase in any medium ever and one he’s itching to adapt in a film.
Flesicher was “geeked out” by the idea of a treasure-hunting game that essentially let players become Indiana Jones. The movie even makes some not-so-subtle nods to those movies throughout (“Nuns. Why did it have to be nuns?” Holland, who plays Nathan Drake, deadpans in one scene.) For Fleischer, the game series already had every ingredient needed to work as a film.
“What really distinguishes Uncharted is its comedic tone,” Flesicher tells Digital Trends. “The dynamic between Nate and Sully, their relationship, the banter, the incredible action set pieces that are always pushing the envelope. They’re all things that make for a great video game, but also things that make for a great movie.”
“The games are so immersive and already so cinematic. The action is beyond movie quality.”
Some moments from the film are explicitly inspired by the game. An action set piece that sees Nathan Drake clinging onto cargo as it flies out of a plane is directly pulled from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. The movie opens with a flashback to Nate’s time in an orphanage that’s reminiscent of Uncharted 4’s opening.
Even with those similarities, there are a lot of differences, too. It’s just as much informed by Pirates of the Caribbean as it is Uncharted. The more film-inspired riffs on the premise are what help it stand up on its own, rather than putting it in competition with an unparalleled, interactive blockbuster game.
“With video game adaptations, it would be a mistake to try and offer up a movie that recreates the experience of playing the game,” Fleischer says. “The games are so immersive and already so cinematic. The action is beyond movie quality. I don’t know, if you’ve played the game, why you would want to watch a movie version of it if it’s just one-to-one.”
Charting a new course
Naughty Dog, the game series’ developer, played a key role on the project. Co-president Neil Druckmann offered notes to let producers know if anything betrayed the spirit of the game. It even helped get some Easter eggs into the film — eagle-eyed fans might catch a familiar paw print early on.
“I think the fact that it’s a video game movie allowed us to bend the rules of gravity.”
The trick was finding where it made sense to tweak the game’s DNA. That started with its hero, Nathan Drake. Played by Holland, the movie presents a much younger (and less lethal) version of the character, which was an early point of contention for series faithful. Fleischer believes that decision makes perfect sense for the story the film tells.
“We wanted to show that Nate was somebody who wasn’t some hardened, jaded action-star. He was just a kid who got brought on this adventure,” Fleischer says. “Perhaps over time, he’ll become more callous and bloodthirsty, but for the sake of this film, it didn’t feel true to our version of the character to have him wantonly shooting people … the violence just seemed a little excessive.”
Rather than replicating exact action moments, the film looks to the rules and logic of the game for inspiration. One scene featured in a trailer shows Holland fighting atop a massive pirate ship as it’s carried through the air by helicopters. It’s completely over the top, even compared to the games, but it’s also distinctly Uncharted.
“There’s no limit to what we could come up with in terms of how extreme it could be,” Fleisher says. “I think the fact that it’s a video game movie allowed us to bend the rules of gravity. Certain people have noted upon seeing the trailer, ‘there’s no way those helicopters could carry the boats!’ But if you’re worried about that, then you’re not really invested in the story.”
“There’s a little bit of a video game logic to certain aspects of the action, but that’s a good thing.”
Tom Holland, superfan
It helped to have a superfan on set in the form of Holland. The Spider-Man star puts his own stamp on Nathan Drake, bringing some of Peter Parker’s anxious energy to the role. But as an actor who loves the games, Holland helped make sure some of the series’ finer details stayed intact.
“It was super helpful to have Tom Holland on set because he’s a huge fan of the game itself,” Fleischer says. “If he were to pick up a piece of paper in the space, he’d make sure to turn it over and back just like Nathan Drake would do. That’s a detail that even I wouldn’t have thought to have done, but as a huge fan of the game, he wanted to make sure every moment felt like an Uncharted moment.”
Holland wasn’t just instrumental in developing the film’s version of Nathan Drake; his love of the games influenced how certain scenes were put together. Puzzle solving is a big part of the film, as it is in the game, with the cast finding hidden switches and keyholes in old ruins. For a player like Holland, those puzzles didn’t initially feel tricky enough to stump Nathan Drake.
“He’s also added some complications to the puzzle solving,” Fleischer says. “Sometimes we’d have a scene conceived and rehearsed and he’d say, ‘Nah, it’s too easy, it’s too easy! They wouldn’t make it this easy on you in the games!’ He’d make sure we were always adding obstacles he’d have to overcome as Nathan Drake.”
All those little details help Uncharted capture the feel of the games even when it’s inventing totally new situations for Nate and Sully. It’s a video game adaptation where everyone involved seems eager to do the game justice. Sometimes, that means not being too precious about the source material and taking more subtle cues to get at the heart of it.
Uncharted opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, February 18.
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