Sony Pictures has been trying to make the Uncharted movie happen for a long time. The wildly successful video game series from Naughty Dog seems tailor-made for the cinematic transfer, with its Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones influences worn proudly on its sleeve.
However, since 2008 has the project has languished in development hell, with multiple potential stars and directors circling the film before moving on. At one point, David O. Russell (American Hustle) was attached to direct Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: The Last Knight), and last year it was reported that Joe Carnahan had been recruited to write a new draft of the film. Potential Nathan Drake actors included Oscar Isaac, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and basically every major Hollywood actor named Chris.
This week we learned that Spider-Man Homecoming star Tom Holland was in talks to play a young Nathan Drake in an Uncharted prequel, directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum), which would be inspired by a flashback scene in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, where Drake meets his mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan for the first time. This is a major boon for Holland, who has quickly established himself as one of the brightest stars of his age, thanks to his scene-stealing role in Captain America: Civil War, as well as striking work in indie films like The Lost City of Z and The Impossible (not to mention his killer Rihanna routine on Lip Sync Battle). He’s already taken home a BAFTA award – voted on by the British public – and with potentially two major franchises to his name, he could easily become a major power player in Hollywood. He’s certainly right for the role – charming, a striking physical presence, and just goofy enough. Of course, it’s still too early to call, and there are a number of obstacles in his way.
Video game movies don’t have a great reputation. For as influential as the medium has been in modern pop culture, and as limitless as its cinematic potential is, thanks to the work of companies like Naughty Dog, it’s a transfer that has proven difficult, even for the best film-makers. So far, the critical and commercial reaction to such projects has ranged from decent (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) to disastrous (Bloodrayne). The Resident Evil series has achieved surprising longevity, but has long since given up on remaining faithful to the source material (a reboot of the franchise has already been announced), while Prince of Persia seriously under-performed – and the less said about the Super Mario Bros. movie, the better.
Often, it feels like studios are too tentative in their approach to the material, choosing to deviate wildly from the stories that fans loved so much in an attempt to create something more traditionally cinematic. How else do you explain Super Mario Bros. inexplicably becoming a jaded yet utterly laughable dino-dystopia, or Assassin’s Creed spending far too much of its run-time in the Abstergo facility, instead of in the historical settings that the games were so adept at breathing life into? Many studios stumble in turning games, an inherently participatory experience, into a coherent story to be viewed rather than played. The Doom adaptation attempted to tread both waters by having a scene where viewers had a first-person shoot-em-up scene like the game, but it did little to impress.
Uncharted may succeed where those films failed because the story is already formatted like a movie. It’s a third person experience with tight plotting, well-developed characters and some of the best writing in modern video games. It’s a game with its roots in old adventure movies, from Indiana Jones to Romancing the Stone, and the 1930s serials that influenced both. A game-to-film adaptation would, in theory, be a much simpler job for the Uncharted team.
The decision to make the film a prequel has raised a few eyebrows, but it presents some unique opportunities for the studio and crew. Of course, there’s the extended shelf life of a possible franchise, should the first film be successful (you’ll get a lot more films out when your leading man is in his early 20s, rather than perennial Nathan Drake favorites like Chris Pratt and Nathan Fillion), but a younger hero would also give audiences something we haven’t seen as much of in recent years. The typical leading man in Hollywood remains most commonly found in the mid-to-late 30s age range, although thanks to eternal leading men like Tom Cruise, that age is increasing. The coveted 18-35 demographic is one Hollywood still prizes above all others, but the number of leading actors in that age range is surprisingly small.
A young Nathan Drake would present an increasingly rare opportunity in blockbusters for a youthful lead and the kind of origin story that is often left to the flashback scenes in most major movies. It would also be an easier sell to potential viewers who haven’t played the game, as such an adaptation could be marketed more straightforwardly as a good old fashioned action-adventure movie. Coming next year, we all also see the Tomb Raider reboot, which follows the recent games in which Lara Croft ( who will be played by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander) is young and learning the art of tomb-raiding for the first time.
Uncharted does not yet have a release or shooting date, but hopes are already high that we may see a video game movie worth watching, and one that could revive the “intrepid explorer” genre for a new generation. It could be a risk for Sony to put so much stock in Holland – after all, his star is rising but he’s not an A-Lister, and nowadays not even A-Listers are a guaranteed hit-maker – but for one of our decade’s stars to watch, this is an immense opportunity for him, and one we’ll be sure to root for.