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Nawt You: How Ignoring Canon Cost David O. Russell the Uncharted Gig

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | June 10, 2011 | Comments ()

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | June 10, 2011 |


uncharted-2-among-thieves-artwork-big.jpg

With the queue of "original" Hollywood blockbusters about as long as the voluntary sign-in sheet at Arkham Asylum, we've had a few columns that recently addressed adaptation and the internet dread word, "canon." As Drew Morton illustrated, the line between video games and movies is blurred with a new emphasis on cinematic qualities and storytelling (even when it falls flat on its face, they're trying). We've come a pretty damn long way from bopping sideways-shuffling mushrooms on the head to present day; for crissakes, the Halo soundtrack has enough recognizable tracks and subsequent record sales to receive symphony arrangement. Nobuo Uematsu and the Black Mages now do arena shows. Comic books move onto Broadway (or should I say violently hurl themselves into?), first-person shooters sponsor armchair infantrymen that get paid better than actual Marines, and "Madden NFL" tries to play itself off as an annual holiday on release.

Formerly limited to comic-book nerds trolling internet forums (people who read books used to just snuff their noses and say the print was better), content griping is now pervasive enough to sew pockets of rage for any would-be adaptation. The not-so-new catchword is "canon," a set of rigorous standards that can bend just enough to allow Wolverine an extra foot of height, or as in the following case, scuttle an attached director and movie star pairing.

Enter and exit the David O. Russell avec Mark Wahlberg production of Uncharted. To further elaborate on TK's sentiment for the Playstation 3-based series ("The game (and its sequel) is, by the way, the fucking balls."), Uncharted carries on a tradition of adventure games that started with Pitfall. While Pitfall Harry was not developed with Henry Jones Jr. in mind (yet both are indebted to the pulp comics of Doc Savage), the spiritual connection is undeniable. Fast-forward to the infant days of the first Playstation, the male adventurer-cum treasure-seeker motif took a total 180-degree turn. Reborn as a buxom brunette with twin pistols and a propensity for side flips, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" endeavored to discover the same sort of mythical artifacts, even if her tits arrived through the door five minutes before the rest of her. That series died off after a slew of poor games and poorer (but still successful) movies, and gamers generally gravitated towards emotionally vacant brutes with plasma rifles and wonderfully inventive grenades.

Uncharted, released in 2007, takes the about-face turn from Indy to Lara, and brings us back to a male protagonist jet-setting about ancient locales and nigh impenetrable jungles. The uproar over Russell's plans for the film began with his assumed casting of Mark Wahlberg, who just didn't seem to fit the right notes. Physically, it's worth noting that Drake is based on Johnny Knoxville (deal with it), more tall and sinewy than short and built. And Wahlberg, while certainly not an incapable actor, has never embodied the charming, caddish side of the character. His Dorcester accent and thuggish mannerisms are also in contrast to voice actor Nolan North's interpretation, which reinforces his physical limitations and fallibility. Throughout the Uncharted series, Drake's quips and acknowledgment of the occasionally absurd nature of video-game consequence pokes holes at the fourth wall; his ability to confide engages the real-world player as both avatar and friend.

The deeper wound that Russell cut was his disregard for the established canon of the series. Often times we throw that word around too rigidly; necessary inclusions/exclusions to feature films have to consider budgeting, time, and importance to the story. While this inherently manifests in comic-book properties, it has become a burdensome issue with video game adaptations. Trying to deduce any semblance of a cohesive story is near impossible if you're adapting a fighting game (the sad majority of video-game films), and the scares and thrills are paramount when re-creating survival horror. Sometimes the fan boys are right; sometimes excessive rewrites and newfangled plot lines detract from the very characteristics that made a protagonist likable. But getting too lost in the publications is as problematic; just as there are multiple incarnations of a character in print or pixel, we need to accept our 120-minute liaisons as another interpretation, so long as the intent is an honest homage.

So long as they know what they are interpreting.

Russell was given the go-ahead to pen his version of Uncharted, and this is where the proverbial mine cart starts to go off the rickety rails. The immediate casting links [link] included Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, which would be great if we were still in the 80s and Nathan Drake was working his way up La Cosa Nostra's ladder. The lines were starting to get crossed; Russell was writing in characters that had yet to exist in either of the series' first two games, or the previewed third. Sure, it sounds great to start bringing in heavyweight actors, but De Niro has seen greatly diminishing returns on his performances, and Pesci's spitfire Neapolitan Napoleon act hasn't been called on for 15 years. As auxiliary characters, personalities that big can only detract from the main character, the action, setting, and certainly the villains. What was being proposed was much closer to the family affairs of National Treasure, a G-rated, wood-paneled station wagon of a vehicle, driven by the lummox Nic Cage with passenger-seat Jon Voigt channeling a watered-down version of Henry Jones the elder.

It's a shame Russell didn't know what he was working with, because a video game like Uncharted is built as a single-player story up. This is the closest we're going to get to a 21st century Indiana Jones, and it far eclipses one of the dark chapters in the history of my life modern cinema. Beyond the muddled performances and CGI-overkill, the process that guided the first three Indy movies was utterly destroyed by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The MacGuffins were compelling because they were recognizable objects of antiquity, and all the diary entries and pencil rubbings and trap doors were puzzle pieces littered along the pilgrim road of the viewer. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are so very real to us because there's a recorded history and associated mythology; their luster is polished the longer they are lost to rumors and failed expeditions. When we finally arrive at the doorstep of fable, Lucas and Spielberg gave us a tangible treasure, one they betrayed by changing the Crystal Skulls appearance, and by abandoning the wonder of supernatural religious faith for a New Age hokey quest for aliens. Maybe we don't believe in the Holy Grail as granting immortality, but we know that for thousands of years there are influential groups that have, and that massive segments of the population believe in the object's divinity. Alien settlers with telepathic powers and abandoned space ships? Maybe Tom Cruise, but certainly not your average god-fearing American.

Perhaps the legends that populate Uncharted are unfamiliar, but they exist in historic and contemporary literature. While the Crystal Skulls seemed like a shortcut to a quick script, the creators of the series at Naughty Dog take us from El Dorado in the first game, and then off to tailing the cross-continent traversing set by Marco Polo. We're pushed from Istanbul east, to Kathmandu and the hidden kingdom of Shambhala (an early name for Shangri-La) in Inner Asia. The action is fresh and frantic; a Nepalese town crumbles and bursts in a matter of minutes, improvising cover and ledges. In Borneo, you vault along freight cars and open-air cabins as a train quakes through the jungle and up into the mountains. Compare that to the few quotes that can be scrambled up pre-Russell quit:

"I think if we take that family dynamic that we have in The Fighter, and put that in terms of a grander stage, with a crime family that metes out justice in the world of art and antiquities. If you're the head of a museum, or head of state, you've got to deal with them, and they're badass ...They're like the Sopranos in some ways, but they have great taste, and they have a sense of justice."

Ummmm...Swiss Family Rauschenberg? The Art*Team?

I would like to see someone tackle Uncharted at some point. Is that hope a bit saturated with a few-too-many viewings of The Rundown? You betcha. Is there room to change the story around and add dialogue? Of course, but gutting what makes a property successful, be it comic-book, novel, or even video game, repudiates the very reasons for its popularity. Well, maybe now we can get Fillion in on this.



Dan Saipher thinks Indy IV was a bigger crime than The Prequels, and regrets not bringing down the production as it was being filmed in New Haven.


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