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Do you like video games? Do you like movies? Can't understand why Hollywood can't put two and two together? We neither. That's what prompted Let's Play Movies, a new biweekly feature that discusses the cinematic potential of your favorite games and what should be done to maximize it. This week, I'm focusing on the Uncharted series.
Uncharted has gone from an original IP that nobody had heard of to becoming what many argue is the series to represent the PlayStation 3’s library, a library that didn’t get interesting until Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune came along in 2007. Combining run-and-gun gameplay with platforming mechanics, Drake’s Fortune was rough around the edges but still earned enough high praise to bring developer Naughty Dog (creators of the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter series) and the struggling PS3 back into the console war with Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.
Five years and two more games later, Uncharted is a powerhouse series, with legions of fans and only the best word of mouth from the industry. In many ways, the games themselves are already movies; a high premium is put on the story and characters as much as the gameplay. The voice and body capture work are universally praised as some of the best in gaming and the sheer scale of trouble the cast gets into has to be seen to be believed. All of it screams blockbuster movie.
So naturally, Hollywood wanted to make the vision into a reality. With Sony Pictures securing the rights to the series, plans went underway to adapt Drake’s Fortune, with David O. Russell (The Fighter) set to direct and Mark Wahlberg in the lead of Nathan Drake. After a long drawn-out process during which Russell made his plans for the story known (causing a lot of fans to scratch their heads), he exited the adaptation, taking Wahlberg with him. Now the adaptation has lost its second director in Neil Burger (Limitless) and has consequently brought on new screenwriters to overhaul the script before picking up the pieces of this troubled project.
So while the project dwells in hell, we stop to fantasize what about the series works for a film adaptation and what could be an issue.
"Next time...I'm flying."
The Action: Make no mistake, the Uncharted series is an action/adventure brand. Sure it may have a few puzzles thrown in and a few stealth missions, but the core of the series is over-the-top, bombastic action. Like a Michael Bay movie, except without the bad dialogue/characters/story/
Nate has broken into massive trap-filled tombs, worked his way up a moving train while fending off a hundred mercenaries (only to end up dangling over an abyss when said train blows up), has been thrown out of a cargo plane as it disintegrated in flight and made his way through a war-torn Nepal with a helicopter (missiles and machine gun included) hot on his heels. Some of the action in the series has pushed what the PS3 is capable of to its limits with stunning results. What’s more, near all of what occurs in Nate’s adventures are very manageable feats to pull off with a little movie magic. Massive explosions and frantic gunfights are not new to Hollywood. But there’s a big difference between dumb and intelligent action; at least from a gaming standpoint, the Uncharted series falls in the latter category.
An adaptation would greatly benefit from a director who favors practical effects over CGI: Christopher Nolan, Len Wiseman and Ridley Scott come to mind. Regardless, with the right direction (and script), an adaptation of the Drake’s Fortune can provide the sort of escapism we love in blockbuster movies without dumbing us down in the process.
Said every audience member of a Brett Ratner movie...ever.
The Wrong Director/Writers: Bearing in mind this is an issue for any film, not just a video game adaptation, but Uncharted will require writers who can bring out the best in the series' characters and a director who can balance said characters with visual spectacle. It would have to be a strong combination to snap the stigma of "game-to-film adaptation" while generating some excitement.
David O. Russell was an interesting choice and one that got people talking due to his Oscar nomination for The Fighter, but nobody could or would have known if he could handle the action demanded of this series. Neil Burger (Limitless) was briefly in the running until he recently backed out, and now the writers of G-Force are reworking the screenplay. (If you don't know anything about that movie I just mentioned, consider your ignorance sweet, sweet bliss.) With one foot already in the grave, Sony needs to get one hell of a director to back this project. It's anybody's guess who it will be, but given how low Sony aimed with their new screenwriters, we're not holding our breath.
"When a man loves a...wait, what're we talking about?"
Characters: Bombastic action aside, what makes Uncharted stand out is how memorable, likeable and/or relatable the cast of characters is, notably lead character Nate Drake (voiced and acted to a T by Nolan North). Many of us could not pull off some of the stunts that Nate can or kill as many pirates/mercenaries as he does (and he kills a lot), but through his affable nature and breezy sense of humor, Drake is built as a super-version of the “everyman.” Despite being able to pull off crazy feats of endurance and violence, he still feels human and grounded in an over-the-top world, perfect for a leading character in a blockbuster setting.
It only helps that the supporting cast is strong. If guys can respond to Nate’s presence, the ladies will love Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) and Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black), two flames of Nate who more than combat the “damsel in distress” stereotype. Finally, series favorite Sully is the crazy uncle/mentor (with gambling debts) we wished raised us. Each of the characters established in the games have the longevity and personality to carry over into (multiple) film adaptations, if handled with respect to the performances laid out by the original actors.
Casting Misfire: So many factors go into what makes a film successful, financially or otherwise. Uncharted is in need of a strong director but it'll be shot (as in bang, dead) if the casting of Nate, Elena and friends is way off the mark. As noted before, characters are as much a foundation of the games (and what makes them so popular) as the gameplay itself, thanks in large part to the performances given by North, Rose, etc.
Many fans would argue that the same actors should reprise their roles originated in the games, though matching polygon faces to their real counterparts can be a jarring experience, especially given how Nate is in his late 20s/early 30s and the man who plays him is in his 40s. Same goes for Nathan Fillion, who has expressed great interest in the part despite being outside the bounds of Nate's character in the games (we'd still watch that movie though.) Charisma along with exceptional chemistry within the cast should be the most important considerations with regards to casting this one.
"Okay...next time, I'm driving."
The Locales: When we say “locales,” we’re thinking more of the second and third entries to the series, as Drake’s Fortune takes place on and around a distant, unnamed island. Much in the vein of Indiana Jones or a Bond film, the Uncharted series often blends exotic settings with civilian backdrops and detours. There’s no lack of variety when it comes to a stage for Drake and company to play on, and “globe-trotting” hits stand a better chance of response in foreign film markets, especially if you’ve got quality action to back it up.
It isn’t just the realistic settings that make the Uncharted series an attractive one for film adaptation. Oftentimes, Nate is drawn into adventures focusing on items housed in mythical cities, such as El Dorado, Shambhala and Ubar. Each of these locations is vast, detailed and colorful, all of them ripe to be brought to the big screen. But therein lies a potential issue with adapting the series.
"Let me give you kisses!'
Mysticism: While it isn’t flying all over the place, magic is very real in the Uncharted universe. Or at least curses are. Often introduced in the third act of each game, Nate comes upon a place of mythical origin that has plenty of creatures trying to kill him. Whether it be mutated Nazis, Shambhala Guardians or Djinn possession, Nate isn’t a stranger to mythical confrontation. Introducing this aspect towards the end of a game is easier for players to swallow. A standard theater audience might balk after the first two thirds of a film based its characters and action (predominately) in the realm of reality only to find an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-type finale. Then again, what’s a blockbuster without a little magic? So long as there aren't aliens, Uncharted should survive.
The Bottom Line
When you get down to it, the Uncharted series was made to be adapted because it is modeled after the very blockbuster adventure films we all were raised on. Two parts character, two parts adventure and near relentless levels of action give a film adaptation of the series plenty of room to run; whether the films directly adapt the games or take the characters in a new/original direction. Whatever path they walk, cast chemistry is as essential as a director who can balance said cast with charm against awe-inspiring action sequences.