Uncharted territory: Inside the 14-year mission to break a video game movie curse

What the journey to make Uncharted can teach us about video game movies.

There's no one more understanding of the pressures surrounding video game movie adaptations than some of the creatives involved with Uncharted. After 14 years of development hell that included several directors and various screenwriters cycling on and off the project — plus a pandemic thrown in — production finally made it to a Barcelona beach in 2020 to shoot a crucial cameo. A 24-year-old Tom Holland, playing Nathan Drake, the Indiana Jones-esque adventure seeker with a con artist streak, stood beside Nolan North, the then-50-year-old voice actor who originated the Drake role, starting with the first game released in 2007. Holland, now 25, offers a frank remark when looking back on that meet and greet: "We really needed his approval."

North, dressed in shorts and a blue-and-white baseball tee for his big-screen close-up, was a living reminder of the legacy of Uncharted, a franchise that helped elevate the gaming medium to a storytelling art form with its cinematic approach, engrossing story, and snappy dialogue. The series has sold more than 44 million copies across six entries as of 2017, making it one of the most profitable gaming franchises of all time. The last thing anyone needed after years of trying and failing to get this movie made was for North to not give his blessing. Fortunately, he was encouraging of the young star. "Knowing that I had him in my corner made everything just a little bit easier," Holland says.

Hollywood has long held a fascination with mining the gaming medium for film concepts, but it's a rocky history. Everyone in the biz has likely heard the phrase "video game movie curse" — as in, they don't often succeed. Ever heard of 1993's Super Mario Bros.? How about 1997's Mortal Kombat: Annihilation? Sure, some end up making money, but if the standard is Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019), the two highest-grossing game adaptations of all time, are any of them really any good? And with the quality of games, including Uncharted, rivaling that of film in the year 2022, is it even possible to make a compelling adaptation when the bar for the source material keeps rising?

Producer Charles Roven of Atlas Entertainment has been pondering these questions since 2008, when Uncharted, the movie, was first put into development at Sony. For him, it's about two things: "We want to honor what I call the canon but still try to find something that's gonna make it unique." That, he admits, is a tricky balance to strike, as anyone can see from the long road it took to make the film a reality.

Charting a path

Mark Wahlberg's Sully and Tom Holland's Nathan Drake hunt for treasure in 'Uncharted'
| Credit: Clay Enos/Columbia Pictures

Roven and his producing partner teamed with Avi Arad, who worked on the Sam Raimi Spider-Man and Bryan Singer X-Men movies, in the hopes of turning Uncharted into a new blockbuster franchise. Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer were the first screenwriters to try their hands at developing the story. Some things worked, some didn't, such as the story's supernatural element. "One of the great things about this Uncharted is it stretches reality, but there's no supernatural element to it," Roven says, comparing the current version of the film to this original take. "It's really a treasure hunt movie."

David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) became the first director tapped to helm the effort in October 2010. A month later, Mark Wahlberg, the star of Russell's The Fighter, spoke publicly in an interview with MTV about coming aboard to play Nathan Drake, the charismatic globetrotter believed to be a descendent of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake.

It's difficult for Wahlberg to remember the specifics of what happened all those years ago, but he says Russell's vision was "more of a heist movie." The dream was for Robert De Niro to play Sully, Nate's older, mustachioed mentor, and Joe Pesci to play a member of Sully's crew. Neither star was formally attached at the time, but the concept envisioned these two characters recruiting Wahlberg's Nate for elaborate jobs. Executives at Sony "didn't see eye to eye with David's vision," Wahlberg tells EW. "They came to me and said, 'We want to go down a different path,' which I said, 'Fine. I'm willing to continue on this journey.' Even though it was based on a video game, it was so cinematic, and it was story-driven, and it just made for an obvious great adaptation, if executed properly."

That "if" began ringing louder after press reported Russell's departure from Uncharted in 2011 to make Silver Linings Playbook. Wahlberg hung on for a while longer, but eventually he, too, moved on to other projects. A number of people cycled through the film thereafter: Neil Burger (Divergent) replaced Russell as director, Seth Gordon (Baywatch) replaced Burger, and writers Marianne and Cormac Wibberley worked on a new story treatment before David Guggenheim came in. (Guggenheim's script had leaked online as part of the Sony hack of 2014.) Everyone was failing to unearth this cinematic treasure — a movie that embraced the soul of the games while aligning with the studio's mission. Director Shawn Levy (Real Steel) eventually gave Uncharted the push it needed.

Tom Rothman, who became head of Sony Pictures in 2015, had set up annual meetings with Holland in light of his successful casting as Spider-Man. They would discuss what had been going on and where they could potentially go together in the future. During one such meeting in a cafeteria at Sony headquarters, Rothman mentioned Uncharted. "Rather than picking up where the games left off, he wanted to talk to me about starting from the beginning and telling Nate and Sully's first adventure," Holland recalls. This meant the character of Nathan would be decidedly younger before he becomes the character at the start of the games.

Levy told EW during a moderated panel for the E3 gaming convention in 2021 that he spent a year and a half working on that version of the script with a new writer, Joe Carnahan, but things just weren't coming together. They couldn't find their Sully to Holland's Nate, and before long, Levy decided to make Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds instead. Speaking with EW on the set of that movie in 2019, Levy said that the notion of a video game movie curse is "pretty historically accurate."

"I think you're often obsessed with servicing the fans of that video game, understandably," he said. "We want a movie that will appeal to gamers, but we will have failed if we only appeal to gamers. We really want a broadly accessible movie." Levy saw a benefit in Free Guy, which was about video games but not strictly adapted from any game: "We don't have to bear that burden of swearing fealty to the source material."

Holland doesn't reveal many details on Levy and Carnahan's Uncharted treatment in case the studio revisits it for a future sequel, but he says it was "massively" different than the current movie. The actor also credits Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Travis Knight (Bumblebee), two other directors who came on after Levy (only to then drop off), as having heavy hands in the evolution of the film. It was during Knight's stint in 2019 that Sony went back to Wahlberg, this time offering him the role of Sully.

When Wahlberg heard Holland was playing Nate, reality settled in. "Oh, now I'm the old guy," he jokes. "Well, I guess that's how it is." Wahlberg came around to the benefit of the gig. If he and Holland were splitting James Bond-like duties, he had the benefit of staying in his tux while Holland got dirty with all the physical stunts. "Let him walk outta the water in his Speedo," Wahlberg quips.

With Knight aboard, everything seemed like it was finally going to happen. They had a finished screenplay from Rafe Lee Judkins and the team of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, while Judkins, Jon Hanley Rosenberg, and Mark D. Walker were getting story credit. But then, like yet another booby-trap boulder chasing Indy down a cavern, Knight dropped off the project over scheduling issues. Holland admits all these filmmakers filtering in and out of Uncharted was concerning. "I was convinced that we had our hands on something that could be incredibly popular. It was just a grind," he says. "We had to make sure we found the right person for it."

X marks the spot

Tom Holland dons a games-accurate outfit as Nathan Drake in 'Uncharted.'
| Credit: Clay Enos/Columbia Pictures

With mere weeks before the planned start of production and yet another premiere delay looming, Sony turned to Ruben Fleischer to take the reins. He had already helmed Venom and Zombieland: Double Tap for the studio and was thrilled by the prospect of filming a movie outside of the U.S. The filmmaker says he was also "completely blown away" by the script, but he knew what he was getting into.

"I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say that it was a fast-moving train I was hopping aboard, but I was so stoked," he remarks. "It was stressful," Holland adds. "We were all guns blazing."

The sets were built and lit for cameras to begin rolling in Berlin on March 16, 2020, starting with a scene in which Holland's Nate and Sophia Ali's Chloe explore a crypt for clues to Ferdinand Magellan's lost treasures. But the spread of COVID-19 a few days earlier halted production. A two-week hiatus turned into months, but it gave the team more time to shape the movie.

Elements like character introductions were added to the script as everyone hunkered down in isolation, according to Fleischer. For one, the previous draft didn't feature an interaction between Antonio Banderas, playing a main antagonist, and Holland. "I remember that being important that the villain and the hero meet each other," he says. "So, that's why that little scene in the auction exists." More importantly, Fleischer says this break gave him time to focus on planning for the action, which is a significant part of the games.

All this time spent with Uncharted has allowed the team to reflect on what makes a good video game movie. "It has to respect and pay homage to the source material, but if it doesn't work as a film, it doesn't matter what it's based upon," says Fleischer. "The fact that it's based on this beloved franchise only enhances the experience." Holland echoes Roven's thoughts about making a film that even non-gamers can get into, noting that by telling the story from the beginning, "you don't have to have played these games to understand the film."

So, have they succeeded? There've been many cooks in the kitchen over the years, which, historically speaking, isn't a great sign. And that certainly aligns with what the majority of critics are saying.

The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Schek wishes the writers could've "come up with something more interesting than this generic adventure." SlashFilm's Hoai-Tran Bui writes Uncharted "shambles along like a reanimated husk of better action-adventure movies before it, filled not with a soul but with jokes and funnies to make up for the fact that we've seen all this before."

IndieWire's David Ehrlich submits his own theory: "It used to be that video game movies were bad because video games didn't give movies enough to work with... Nowadays, in an age when interactive epics are so vast and cinematic that PlayStation characters are regularly played by movie stars (and sometimes even modeled to resemble major filmmakers), it seems that video game movies are bad because video games give movies way too much to work with."

On the flip side, Holland remembers screening Uncharted for what he calls "seriously diehard fans" of the games, and "they all loved it." Then there's the box office. The film opened overseas on Feb. 15 and earned a solid $21.5 million at the international box office before the movie hits theaters this Friday in the States. Audiences already seem to find it entertaining, which was Fleischer's goal.

Hollywood is showing no signs of stopping the adaptation machine when it comes to video games, as evidenced by all the titles making that leap, some even to TV. (The Last of Us, Assassin's Creed, more Resident Evil, Twisted Metal, etc.) So, can a video game movie actually work? The answer, it seems, depends on what you're hunting for.

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