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Photo: ‘Uncharted’/Sony Pictures Releasing
Generally speaking, video game adaptations get a bad rap, and for good reason. While a few have been entertaining B-movies (the first Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider movies), the rest is—putting it mildly—of very poor quality. Either showing a lack of understanding of what made the games so great; time constraints in trying to fit dozens of hours of storytelling into something feature-length; or deviating too much from the source material (as successful as the Milla Jovovich Resident Evil movies were, they bear little resemblance from the video game series).
But lately, it seems like these adaptations are turning a corner. While they had their flaws, 2018’s Rampage with Dwayne Johnson and the Tomb Raider prequel-reboot with Alicia Vikander were enjoyable films that better captured the spirit of their games. And both Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog turned out to be pretty good movies that pleased both fans and newcomers.
Into this, we now have ‘Uncharted‘, based on the popular PlayStation action-adventure game series from Naughty Dog, the creators of The Last of Us. Starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, this upcoming adaptation, in particular, has been a long time coming, having spent 12 years in development hell. With the recent news of filming actually completed, we thought it’s worth exploring what makes the Uncharted series stand out, as well as track its years-long journey to the big screen next year.
‘Uncharted’ – Greatness from Small Beginnings
A bit of Indiana Jones and a dash of National Treasure: that’s more or less the Uncharted video games in a nutshell. The series follows Nathan Drake (Nolan North), a charming and roguish adventurer—and supposed descendant of legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake—as he treks the world in search of long-lost historical artifacts and mythical treasures, exploring lush environments, solving puzzles, and getting into shootouts. In his adventures, he retraces the steps of real-life historical figures like the aforementioned Sir Francis, Marco Polo, T.E. Lawrence, and pirate captain Henry Avery, and occasionally saves the world from nefarious villains.
The first game, 2007’s Drake’s Fortune, was a solid start with great graphics and Hollywood-level production values. But the series took a huge leap forward in quality with the 2009 sequel Among Thieves, with more elaborate set pieces, varied settings and fantastic cinematic presentation. This was further refined and expanded in scope with the third game, 2011’s Drake’s Deception. And the series arguably reached its apex with 2016’s A Thief’s End, which served as the fourth and final entry in the main series; this game in particular excellently combines the thrills and spectacle of the previous games with an emotionally mature and heartfelt story that satisfyingly wraps up Nathan’s journey. Overall, the series is like playing through well-paced and really good Hollywood action-adventure movies.
But what sets Uncharted apart from most other video games is the top-notch acting and writing. The games are very well-written, with witty dialogue and strong character work. Nathan Drake is essentially a less scrupulous Indiana Jones with a dash of John McClane’s reluctant heroism, but as the series progresses he reveals layers of humanity and insecurities as we learn his past. Equally important are the two characters who accompany Drake in all of his adventures: Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) and Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Richard McGonagle). Elena, a journalist/love interest, is Nathan’s equal in wit with a strong moral compass. And Sully is Nathan’s gruff yet wise mentor/father figure. These archetypal characters are elevated thanks to a combination of the writing and great voice and motion-capture performances from the cast; this would lay the groundwork for the characters and performances in The Last of Us and its sequel.
A Long and Arduous Search
Considering the games’ very cinematic feel, it’s no surprise Hollywood took an interest. The film’s development began as far back as 2008 with Avi Arad, the producer of numerous Spider-Man movies, announcing that he was developing a film adaptation with Sony. Screenwriters were hired, and Firefly and Castle actor Nathan Fillion expressed interest in playing Nathan Drake, even launching a social media campaign to rally the fans to support his casting.
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Two years later in 2010, it was announced that writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter) was hired to write and direct the film. Having worked with Russell multiple times, Wahlberg was attached to play Drake and names like Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci were even rumored to join the cast as members of Drake’s family, with Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson on Russell’s wishlist to play Elena. A year later in 2011, Russell left the project citing “creative differences” and moved on to Silver Linings Playbook instead. He was the first director to exit, and he won’t be the last.
Not long after Russell’s departure, it was reported that Limitless director Neil Burger would step in to write and direct the Uncharted movie; a huge fan of the series, Burger explained that he was starting from scratch and vowed to stay true to the spirit of the games. However, a year later in 2012, Burger exited the project to work on Divergent. In a 2013 interview, it was revealed that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were approached by Sony to write the screenplay; despite being fans of the games as well, the two passed on the job as they didn’t know how to set it apart from Indiana Jones.
By 2014, director Seth Gordon would be the third director attached to the project; after Wahlberg left, rumors circulated that Chris Pratt was in talks to play Drake but nothing came of it. Gordon left a year later due to financial issues with the project and moved on to direct the Baywatch movie. In 2016 it was announced that Shawn Levy, director of the Night at the Museum films and producer of Stranger Things, was hired as a director with a script from Joe Carnahan (Bad Boys For Life). At this point things appear to have stabilized a bit as one year later in 2017, Holland—fresh off his breakout first appearance as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War—was cast as Drake; his casting suggested that the movie might explore Drake’s younger years. But the project was hit with another setback in December 2018, when Levy departed due to scheduling conflicts with the upcoming Free Guy (ironically, a video game-themed action comedy).
The next director to sign up was 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg. By this point in the summer of 2019, Sony was committed to releasing the film in December 2020; however, Trachtenberg soon exited the project as well. In September 2019, a month after Trachtenberg’s departure, Bumblebee director Travis Knight was named the new director; in November it was announced that Wahlberg was in talks to return to the project, this time as Sully. A month later, Knight quit the project due to scheduling issues with Holland. This left the original December 2020 release date in doubt.
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In January 2020, Zombieland and Venom director Ruben Fleischer entered talks and was eventually confirmed to direct the movie. With a new script confirming that the story would function as a prequel to the games (and involves famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan), production finally began in March 2020 with Antonio Banderas, Sophia Ali (Grey’s Anatomy), and Tati Gabrielle (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) joining Holland and Wahlberg on the film. While production was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it eventually resumed, and filming officially wrapped on October 29. At the same time, Holland and Wahlberg shared first looks at the movie and their respective characters.
For those keeping scores, that’s twelve years and numerous false starts with six directors and several writers. It’s quite the journey and a reminder that even a seemingly sure thing project like Uncharted isn’t always guaranteed to get off the ground.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Uncharted movie may actually finally see the light of day next year. To say that it’s been a long and bumpy ride might be an understatement, but it has the star power (with Holland excitedly talking up the project), and Sony’s determination to see the movie through is a testament to the studio’s commitment to the series. So as a huge fan of the games, here’s hoping it lives up to the hype.
Uncharted, the movie, is set for release in July 2021.
By Mario Yuwono
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