Why is it so rare for an action adventure movie to actually try to be more than just that? I don’t mean that it has to try to have some high concept premise ala The Matrix or Inception, just that it needs to bring up themes on a more intelligent level than “big thing go boom!”. The previous instalments in the Uncharted series flirted with higher themes but they really were more about adventure and action with large doses of boom. Uncharted 3 is here now and it appears that Writer/Director Amy Hennig has decided it’s time to mature the thematic elements of the series. Click the link for the review.
Uncharted 3 begins with our heroes Nathan Drake (Nolan North) and Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) as they head into a stereotyped English pub to barter a deal for Drake’s ring, an alleged heirloom of legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake. The deal goes bad very quickly and before long Drake and Sully must fight their way out of the pub to escape. From here the adventure takes a brief flashback based diversion to the two heroes first meeting and then travels the globe in search of lost artefacts and mysterious civilisations in a manner similar to that of one Dr Indiana Jones. They travel from London to France, from Syria to Yemen and to various other locals including the middle of the ocean on a pirate cruise ship to 20,000ft above the Rub’al Khali Desert and very shortly after the desert itself. To call this adventure a globe trotter is an understatement.
Whilst the story involves the search for the Atlantis Of The Sands, a city lost in the middle of a desert for centuries, the real story is with Drake and his motivations for the form of dangerous adventures he puts himself in and the cost those adventures have on his closest friends. The story is full of the sort of MacGuffins that would make Hitchcock envious. They are really just objects, such as Drakes ring, that provide an excuse for adventure and in some cases provide clues to the location of the lost city. All of these items play second fiddle to the relationship between Drake and Sully. Sully is getting old, how old exactly is a mystery because the numbers provided don’t add up. But that’s not important. At many points where a narrow escape has been made, such as from a burning chateau, Sully is left having to catch his breath with the gradual acceptance that maybe he needs to pass up this lifestyle at some point. When Drake’s love interest Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) makes her entrance she is the one who feels the need to hammer this through to Drake. The themes of obsession and deception come up multiple times throughout the story in various forms and how Drake deals with this gradually shows a maturation of character that wasn’t as present in previous entries.
Drake has always been a character very much in the vein of the aforementioned Indiana Jones. He’s brave, jokes under pressure yet is also egotistical and shallow. What really makes him stand out from a lot of the modern heroes is the same element that makes Indiana Jones so loved. He’s a fallible human capable of being hurt. When we see him stumble, fall down a ravine or just plain old fashion screw up we connect with him stronger than we would a character without those traits. Being flawed makes a character more identifiable as a real human and it’s amazing how many similar stories fail to realise this. Drake is the Indiana Jones for the modern era, there’s no doubt about that. He’s certainly having better adventures than Dr Jones had with Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
It’s a credit to Amy Hennig that she is able to write a character so self obsessed but still the guy every guy wants to be and every girl wants to be with. Her ability to weave personal character narrative into a story involving somewhere in the region of 600 on screen deaths is quite incredible. For every peak in the action there’s a suitable lull which can take the form of a ancient puzzle for Drake and Sully to solve or a revelatory conversation with the antagonist of the story Katherine Marlowe (Rosalind Ayres). This conversation is an interesting centrepiece of the story. We really don’t know much about Drake’s past, it’s always been told in snippets through relaxed quips between his self and Sully. Here we learn a few secrets of his past, something Drake isn’t too keen to have brought up, but we don’t learn so much as to ruin his mystique. A rare moment of restraint for these times. This scene also informs us of how Drake is constructed psychologically. His discomfort at his past being brought up shows that all these years of adventuring and dangerous living has been an attempt to escape the pain of his past. This scene isn’t the only one to hint at elements of his past either, we finally learn just why he’s so good at reading Latin; a trait not that common to the average person of Drake’s design.
The real moment that steps this above other such adventures of its ilk is a scene that comes after one of the most perfectly staged action sequences ever put on screen. After having a fist and gun fight on a plane which is in the process of being torn apart we have a lonely walk in the desert to show just how low Drake has sunk to. He is weakened, struggling for water and falling to his knees. We see him struggle to figure out which direction to head due to his lack of knowledge of navigating via the stars, a skill usually provided by Sully. At times it feels like we are literally urging him on to complete his journey in the hopes that the next mirage will be real after all. The sequence even dares to provide a literal interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land with the beckoning of Drake to seek shelter in the shadow of a red rock. Can you think of any action films that have ever included poetry in their story? The parallel with Lawrence Of Arabia’s journey through the desert is also clear and quite apt as Lawrence is a real life explorer tied into the main plot quite heavily.
Direction is an odd beast here though. For large chunks of the story an over use of an Aronofsky style “behind the actor” camera is employed. In The Wrestler this was used often as we followed The Ram through his story, here it just seems like a device to frame the action easily during any one of the many gunfights on offer here. To add to that at multiple points Drake appears to die and then return to action at a point nearby. It’s almost as if the scene has been reset. There’s no plot device to allow this and it’s a very bizarre element to include. There’s not even a VCR remote to rewind the action ala Funny Games. These elements, though outlandish and bizarre, don’t detract from the story’s forward motion too much though.
Overall there is little to fault Uncharted 3 on as an action adventure film. The character relationships are just as strong as the action scenes and the writing is top notch stuff, certainly better than most action films these days. Nolan North crafts an enjoyable lead and Richard McGonagle is as charming as ever. Claudia Black returns as Chloe from Uncharted 2 but her role is more as that of a supporting character here and it’s telling of the scale and danger of Drakes quest that she is the first to bow out. If you pine for the days when Indiana Jones was good then give the Uncharted series a try. Whilst I wouldn’t say they’re as good as Raiders Of The Lost Ark or The Last Crusade they certainly put the other two films to shame and provide just the level of derring-do that is missing from modern adventure films.