After 15 years of false starts, Uncharted has finally come to the big screen. A film adaptation starring Tom Holland as Nathan Drake is in theaters now, kicking off PlayStation’s expanded media strategy. It has everything you’d expect from a big-budget blockbuster: Bankable stars, flashy set pieces, and some comical product placement.
There’s just one problem: It doesn’t hold a candle to the games it’s based on. That’s not so much a knock against the film as it is a compliment toward the games. The Uncharted series has spent 15 years building itself up as gaming’s most cinematic series. It doesn’t have stars like Holland, but its set pieces are bigger and more thrilling than your average blockbuster’s.
The film adaptation of Uncharted underlines an awkward reality for Hollywood. When it comes to big-budget spectacle, movies are no longer the best way of delivering action. Video games have superseded them after over a decade of trying to emulate them.
When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune first launched in 2007, it was an ambitious release. It captured the treasure-hunting thrill of Indiana Jones and put it into an eight-hour video game. It wasn’t a perfect first draft (who can forget the zombie-like Descendants?), but it was a turning point for the industry. It showed that video games could be more than mindless fun, with strong writing, well-developed characters, and spectacular action.
Developer Naughty Dog would spend the next decade sharpening its skill set with every game. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves ratcheted up the thrills, opening the game with an unforgettable train sequence that still wows to this day. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception cut back on the supernatural silliness to focus more on its character arcs. And Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End brought it all home, bringing jaw-dropping spectacle and personal storytelling in equal measure.
Uncharted 4 was a major influence for the film adaptation, with director Ruben Fleischer noting that it’s his favorite in the series (he calls the game’s car chase the best car chase in any medium, games or otherwise). That’s not just apparent in the extravagance, but in the quieter character moments, too. Most notably, the film opens with a flashback to Nathan Drake’s time in a nunnery, which is pulled directly from Uncharted 4.
“The games are so immersive and already so cinematic. The action is beyond movie quality,” Fleischer told me when we spoke about the film ahead of its release.
It’s that last part that sticks with me the most, because he’s right. As graphics have gotten better and budgets have ballooned, games like Uncharted 4 now present players with unrestricted excitement. There’s seemingly no limit to what games can deliver, bending the rules of reality and physics to create inventive sequences on a massive scale.
Some things just work better in a video game, too. Both the Uncharted film and Uncharted 3 feature the same sequence where Nathan Drake dangles from the back of an airplane midflight, clinging onto cargo. In the game, it’s a tense sequence on par with any Mission Impossible stunt. In the film, it’s comparatively absurd. An overreliance on visual effects breaks the reality of the sequence, making it clear that Holland is scrambling around a green-screen studio.
It really feels like I’ve crossed into some sort of mirror world when my critique of a movie is that it has worse graphics than the game it’s based on.
Games upping their visual capabilities only puts them on par with movies, but it’s interactivity that gives them a real edge. After all, it’s more fun to feel like you’re the action hero than to watch someone else have all the fun.
Players get to step into Nathan Drake’s shoes when they play the Uncharted games. They’re the ones pushing a joystick forward to scramb;e up flying cargo. They’re the ones swinging Nathan’s fists as he gets into a bar fight, landing each punch with the press of a button. Video games offer an inherent layer of immersion that movies can’t deliver.
It’s not for lack of trying. Hollywood’s fascination with 3D is built around the idea of letting audiences feel like they’re actually in the space. It’s a weak parlor trick, especially considering the current state of VR. Putting on a pair of glasses and seeing some images pop out in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn’t nearly as transporting as strapping on a Meta Quest 2 headset and flying an X-Wing in Star Wars Squadrons.
None of this is to say that games are a better medium than movies. They’re extremely different and each has its own strengths. Movies will always be a focused, less-demanding storytelling medium. Games can be messy by comparison, especially in bloated open-world games where the player becomes the author. But when we talk about big-budget blockbusters, we’re not debating “high art” (it would be comical to argue a David Cage game is brainier than The Power of the Dog).
When I reviewed Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, I noted that it felt like a “full-blown Marvel movie turned video game.” It pulle off mind-bending, dimension-hopping visuals well before Spider-Man: No Way Home. And if I’m being honest, I was more often enraptured by the former than the latter. No Way Home had a handful of fun scenes that had me gleefully shoveling down popcorn, but Rift Apart is one long magic show that never runs out of tricks.
Big studio action movies like Uncharted are pure entertainment. The goal is to give viewers a fun escape by dazzling them with spectacle. Modern games simply offer a larger buffet of “junk food” for bored audiences to gobble down until they’re sick.
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