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We now return to the story of Sony Pictures, the little studio that fought North Korea and lost. Despite a downward spiral for Sony, they’re expecting big returns from this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, so big they’re already preparing their own solo Spidey spin-off about Venom that they won’t need to share the profits of. However, that wasn’t quite enough for them as now they’ve decided to scoop up Homecoming star Tom Holland for a multi-picture deal as Nathan Drake, star of the Uncharted video games.
It’s obvious Sony thinks Holland/Spider-Man is going to be a big deal and wants to lock him into a less financial co-dependent film franchise now before he gets priced out of their range. At the same time, however, Sony’s in a bit of a pickle because they don’t have a lot of franchises at their disposal, which is why they’ve bent over backward to fit Holland into the awkward shape of Uncharted.
I should say I’m not really a fan of the Uncharted game series. I talk a lot about nerd stuff here but making games is the thing I actually have a degree in and in that capacity there’s a lot of stuff in modern gaming that just rubs me the wrong way and Naughty Dogs’ “AAA gaming as lackluster blockbusters” aesthetic is near the top of that list. I understand the series has its fans, and if you’re one of them fine, at least you’re having fun, but don’t act that surprised that Uncharted has languished in development hell for the entirety of the 2010s.
This is just a byproduct of making a game so much like a movie that the only thing setting it apart from the films is the interactive side, so if you lose the interactivity of Uncharted, you’re just left with a watered down Indiana Jones riff like a bastardized Romancing the Stone. This is why director David O. Russell pitched a radically re-imagined version of the story back in 2011 when it seemed like he was going to adapt the property. Thankfully, this didn’t happen, and Russell went on to a career of stupefyingly forgettable and mediocre disappointments.
Since then Uncharted has languished in Sony’s “we’ll get around to it” pile, primarily because fan backlash to Russell’s top-down reworking showed this wasn’t going to be a brand Sony could just slap on any random film. The only problem with said backlash is that all the stuff people like about Uncharted doesn’t really translate to a good film or at least one you can sell in today’s market.
Well rendered landscapes and crazy action sequences are cool in video games where you get to move through those worlds, but in a film, without character, there’s no reason to care. What’s more, Uncharted’s brief moment of mainstream popularity seemed to taper off after the end of its trilogy in 2011. However, last year’s Uncharted: Thief’s End has brought renewed life to the franchise in an unlikely way, and I’d argue has paved the way for a movie adaptation in a more pointed way than ever before.
The biggest problem with making an Uncharted movie was always going to be Nathan Drake, largely because he’s a terrible character. This isn’t predicated on Drake’s inherent colonialism, graverobbing, and borderline racism- Indiana Jones had a lot of those qualities, and he ended up a national hit regardless, no the problem with Nathan Drake has always been that he’s a better supporting character than a hero. Throughout the original Uncharted trilogy, he doesn’t have a whole ton of arc or development, with the series often skirting around moments of greater intimacy with his character.
He’s basically a big pile of glib cynicism and tired sarcasm all slathered in a mild contempt for everything that’s going on, or at least he was in the first three games. In Thief’s End, the character actually took a major turn, similar to some of the stuff hinted at by the flashbacks in the previous game, and comes out stronger for it.
Again, I'm not saying you're wrong to like Nathan Drake or his original trilogy, just that he's a character made very much for his medium. The games don't need Drake to have hidden depths or a larger arc, they need him to be a fun guy to just be on an adventure with and he does that. The problem is that "fun to play an adventure with" does not translate to "fun to watch have an adventure."
For the first time, Nathan Drake is allowed to be a vulnerable character or, at the very least, one we understand. There’s more to him than just always cracking wise about his situation, with Drake’s adventure bro persona heavily framed as an elaborate front constructed to make up for the very broken little boy he really is. This is a big part of why the renewed interest in the series has come from women fans engaged with Drake as something other than a smug, invulnerable jerk.
In this respect, doing the young Drake thing with Tom Holland is actually the best conceivable maneuver. People seem to really gravitate to him when he’s got relatable human characteristics so just dropping the self-important glibness for an earlier, more vulnerable Drake could be a real winner. At the very least Tom Holland seems like an actor who doesn’t immediately work for the bantering bro aesthetic that informs Nathan Drake most of the time, so it’s a step in the right direction.
All of this being said I’m not necessarily sure there’s enough too Uncharted beyond Drake’s characterization to make a full movie. I mean, the idea that Nathan is deep down a broken little boy who crafted the elaborate and invulnerable heroic identity of Drake to become the hero he never had as a child is a solid idea, mainly because it was the same pitch in Batman Begins.
Normally I'm not opposed to ripping off successful material but the last time Sony tried this it gave us the Amazing Spider-Man blunder so call this one a wash I suppose. At the very least Tom Holland’s probably secured his place as a blockbuster star through Homecoming to the point Uncharted won’t break his career anymore than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit broke Chris Pine of being Captain Kirk. As for the rest, I guess it’s just uncharted territory for now.
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