‘Shut your brain down’ and still fail to enjoy ‘Uncharted’

Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

1/10 Wow, they really miss Pirates of the Caribbean, huh?

In Uncharted, Nate Drake (Tom Holland) tentatively teams up with Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to seek the lost treasure of the Magellan Expedition – apparently, there’s a legend that the crew of first recorded circumnavigation of the globe, which embarked from Portugal in 1519 led by Ferdinand Magellan, collected a bunch of gold, from the water I guess, and then they buried it somewhere on the route instead of being obscenely wealthy for the rest of their lives – movie doesn’t address it, so it doesn’t matter. Among a company of heroes and villains all constantly double-crossing each other for no apparent reason, Drake and Sully seek “that gold.”

“That gold.” Sully always pointedly refers to it as “that gold.” Veteran Hollywood screenwriters Rafe Lee Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway couldn’t come up with anything better than “that gold.”  

This review contains spoilers, but you shouldn’t care. Spoilers below.

***

Uncharted is really bad and really dumb. It is a joyful, unabashed throwback to adventure movies of the ‘80s and the prior movies that inspired them, the kind of popcorn flick you’re supposed to just shut your brain down and enjoy – its unabashedness is just about the only good thing that can be said for it. We desperately need more of that joy in theaters right now, but they make it so hard!

You can’t “shut your brain down” to enjoy Uncharted because you need to actively engage with it in order to overlook its flaws. The dialogue is so dumb, the characters’ actions and motivations are so arbitrary, that you have to tell yourself to stop thinking about it. The action scenes are so half-done that you the viewer need to put in mental effort to imagine what they were trying to show you.

Between this and Moonfall and some moments in Death on the Nile, I get the feeling that I’m going to wear out the term “worst visual effects I’ve ever seen” by the middle of the summer. Uncharted doesn’t look like a movie, it looks like a workprint, a half-done product you show producers just so they can see the shape of the final product. It looks like a bootleg of a movie that’ll come out in eight months.

The dominance of the MCU has had several negative impacts – every dominant genre in history appears to have several negative impacts, and it’s never really that genre’s fault, it’s a product of the same cultural and technological forces that made that genre dominant – and one of those impacts is lowering the bar for quality on rear-projection shots. The finger for this specific trend points squarely at Black Panther, which appeared to release in theaters with animation sequences that were just not finished yet and made a developing country’s GDP in theaters anyway because it accessed an audience that’s mostly been ignored for more than a century. Then Cats came out with the director still publicly fine-tuning things, and now, here we are. Uncharted and its classmates seem keenly aware now that viewers won’t mind if they do an extremely poor job, so they cut corners from the start.

The trope of their being no good video game movies has already long outlived its truthfulness, but it’s still frightening to see a specific Play Station Productions logo ahead of Uncharted.

Some facts about gold that Uncharted doesn’t appear to mesh with, because understanding real things is cooler and more fun than “shutting my brain down” – the price of gold can fluctuate pretty wildly, so “about $5 billion worth of gold” is not a useful term. The price on Feb. 18, the day Uncharted came out, was $1,893.60 per ounce, so $5 billion works out to a little more than 165,000 pounds of gold, or a little more than 6,000 of those gold bricks they keep at Fort Knox, or almost one sixth of one room’s worth of gold.

Drake and Sully are after an amount of gold that is insignificant to the market, impractical to transport and would be nearly impossible to offload – as just about any amount of physical gold would be. It’s a difficult material to actually grab and turn into cash, you need a whole mining operation to do it effectively. Even for Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), the evil Spanish investor working against them, hiring a whole crew of mercenaries might make this a not-so-sunny proposition.

It could be that the characters want something other than money, but they don’t. They want “that gold,” and everything else about them crumples like a paper cup. Drake has something about finishing what his dead brother started, but his dead brother just wanted “that gold.” Moncada feels his family is entitled to it, but he also clearly views it as an investment and he murders his father when he’s told to stop this search anyway, so family definitely isn’t actually important to him. Then, later, his top mercenary murders him and appears to immediately seize control of all his assets, and then she just keeps searching for “that gold.” I can’t wrap my head around this!

If all anyone in this movie wants is money at any cost, there are so many better ways – mercenary work springs to mind, as does somehow becoming your wealthy boss’s sole heir. Becoming a stockbroker or robbing domestic banks don’t hold the same romance as flying across the world to solve Indiana Jones mysteries, so obviously there are many more motivations than these characters express. Every one of them is an ocean of fantasy and delusion and paranoia and greed. For all of the exotic beaches Uncharted visits, it seems allergic to any of these more interesting emotional places.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, the movie that Uncharted obviously wants to be, the gold is the hidden, cursed treasure of Hernán Cortés, and the plot is directly entwined with the history of violence in that part of the world and the treasure hunters’ greed and selective belief in their own mythology. There’s only one character who’s constantly betraying everyone around him, and he still has a clear-cut motivation for everything he does. In Uncharted, Drake is the only character who isn’t constantly betraying everyone around him, and the motivations for these betrayals remain muddy in hindsight.

How is “shutting my brain down” supposed to help me enjoy this? Will all the betrayals, which are designed to be shocking and unpredictable, make more sense if I think about them less? Is there a point of obliviousness I can reach at which these action scenes will look passable?

I don’t want to become the a person who can enjoy this. I want to watch good movies. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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