First conceived way back in 2008, only one short year after the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on PS3, a big-screen adaptation of Naughty Dog’s iconic action-adventure series has been in the works for almost a decade now, and though stuck in development hell for much of that time, with constant fundamental changes delaying the project on numerous occasions, the film’s survival has never really felt in doubt.
However, while recent reports suggest headway is finally being made on production, and that the finished article might not be as disastrous as other famous video game-film adaptations, there are, nevertheless, plenty of arguments against making an Uncharted movie in the first place.
The very fact production has been so protracted is perhaps the most obvious cause for concern. Over the past 10 years, various actors, screenwriters, and directors have come and gone, possibly hinting at a lack of confidence among the relevant parties in Hollywood that the film can actually succeed, as well as a degree of uncertainty within the ranks of series publisher Sony itself as to what form an Uncharted film should even take.
Now, optimists might suggest such painstakingly slow progress is an encouraging sign, demonstrating Sony’s desire to create something that lives up to the original series rather than simply cashing-in on the IP in the manner of the Resident Evil films, but considering how long it’s taken Sony to make a decision regarding something as basic as the setting – let alone the script or cast – as a fan, it’s difficult not to feel at least a little apprehensive. Just look at another famous example: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It suffered from similar problems, and we all know how that turned out.
That’s not to say the constant changes in direction are a guarantee of failure. On the contrary, recent examples from the world of gaming – specifically, Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian – prove that lengthy, troubled development cycles, while frustrating, aren’t necessarily fatal. Neither of these games are perfect, true, but the important thing is that both are worthy additions to their respective series. The former manages to recapture much of the magic that made the early Final Fantasy titles such unique, wonderful experiences, while the latter boasts all the charm and narrative poignancy of its venerable cousins, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
Nor is Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider alone in alienating gamers. Recent movie history is littered with sub-standard adaptations that allude to the inherent difficulty of translating something from a highly interactive medium like gaming to a far more sedentary one like cinema. After all, for every genuine success – Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, for instance – there are a dozen abject failures: Doom, Mortal Kombat, D.O.A, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Street Fighter, Silent Hill, and, perhaps most famously, Super Mario Bros.
However, while the problems just mentioned might be the most apparent, the issues concerning an Uncharted film specifically run far deeper. For starters, the games themselves are already famous for their compelling narrative structure and cinematic action sequences, making the whole concept of a big-screen adaptation feel somewhat redundant. More importantly as far as the latter is concerned, whereas these huge, expertly-choreographed, if at times bombastic set-pieces possess a certain amount of charm and individuality within the context of gaming, they’re a dime a dozen in modern Hollywood. For example: far from providing a satisfying conclusion to the franchise’s third installment, you get the feeling that Nate and Sully’s desperate escape from the crumbling ruins of Iram in Drake’s Deception would come across as rather hackneyed in a blockbuster movie – something ripped straight from the Michael Bay school of film direction.
Indeed, when asked about his Uncharted script in recent weeks, writer Joe Carnahan himself declared “I’ve never written crazier sh** in terms of an action sequence than what’s in that movie.” Considering the number of preposterous, over-the-top scenes in The A-Team – arguably his most famous credit to date – his words aren’t very encouraging.
“Why?” I hear you ask. “You said yourself explosive set-pieces are an integral part of the series.” Because such statements erroneously imply that the Uncharted games are all about action, when in reality the engrossing stories and hugely charismatic characters form the true heart and soul of the series; the combat provides little more than the kind of visceral catharsis most AAA publishers seem to think is a prerequisite for every video game.
It’s also rather telling that Neil Druckman took to Twitter earlier this year to categorically deny that either he or anyone else at Naughty Dog has anything to do with the project, going so far as to vocalise his dissatisfaction at Carnahan’s repeated comments claiming Druckman and Co. are actively supporting the film’s development. Hearing things like this, you can’t help but worry about the tone of the film.
That being said, it’s pleasing to learn that Carnahan has refused to dilute the script for a PG-13 audience. Instead, he has retained the swearing and euphemism-laden dialogue that makes the exchanges between Nate, Elena, Sully, and the other characters so entertaining and natural – news that, to be honest, is far more reassuring than reports that claim Sony is “very, very happy with it” (the script). After all, Sony would hardly come out and condemn it at this stage, and besides, a Sony exec who’s primarily concerned with profit and an Uncharted fan who’s only interested in seeing the series rendered faithfully on the big screen will undoubtedly have vastly different views on what constitutes an acceptable screenplay.
Potentially the biggest obstacle, however (one that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg identified as the main reason behind their decision to refuse Naughty Dog’s repeated offers to manage the project), is how an Uncharted movie would appear thematically to a wider audience of cinemagoers. Specifically, they were worried that a film of this nature would suffer from negative comparisons to Indiana Jones, because, in their words, it would be impossible to tell a story that didn’t resemble the adventures of Harrison Ford’s legendary archaeologist, at least superficially.
Unfair though such comparisons might be, they make a good point. As the majority of critics will never have played an Uncharted game in their life, their reviews will undoubtedly be coloured by their memories of the good Dr. Jones (the closest cinematic analogue) which, combined with the almost universally negative perception of video game movie adaptations that already exists, could severely limit the film’s box office success. Irrespective of the film’s objective qualities, this could tarnish the series’ overall legacy as a consequence, in much the same way as the film versions of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil have damaged the reputation of their respective gaming franchises.
Apprehensions aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the more positive reports that have emerged in recent weeks, most notably the change in narrative focus to a teenage Nathan Drake (portrayed by Spider-Man: Homecoming star Tom Holland). Chronicling his early career and relationship with surrogate father/charming rogue Sully is a sensible decision that ensures the movie won’t step on the toes of the original games, expanding instead upon an extremely intriguing period of Nate’s life that the games have left largely untapped thus far.
Also, by concentrating on a younger, more impressionable Nate who’s yet to develop the expert parkour skills and casual disregard for human life we’ve come to expect, the film deftly navigates the problem of finding an actor who can effectively portray the 30-something version we know and love. I have nothing against Mark Whalberg, but when he was being touted for the role, I have to admit I was slightly anxious. To be fair, save from Nathan Fillion, I can’t imagine myself investing in a Nathan Drake that didn’t possess the distinctive voice and pleasing cadence of Nolan North.
To return to the question at hand then, the straight answer is no: I don’t think an Uncharted film is necessary. Once you get past the initial excitement of seeing a beloved video game character – one whom you’ve accompanied on various digital adventures – on the big screen, you’re left with nothing but an inescapable feeling of trepidation. How will it be received by non-gamers, who don’t have these past remembrances to draw upon? Will it recapture even a fraction of the quality of the source material? Will the director inexplicably plump for a dystopian, sci-fi New York setting with an equally mind-boggling humanoid King Koopa as the chief antagonist? Okay, so that last one’s not exactly pertinent to Uncharted, but still.
Far better to let sleeping dogs lie, and keep Drake where he belongs, don’t you think?