When Tom Holland embarked on the project to transform the long-running video game series Unexplored in a movie in 2017, the film had been in development hell for almost a decade.
After going through the directors, the scripts, the fears of the so-called “the curse of the video game” at the top of too many people’s minds, the tide has turned. Fresh off his debut as a web-sling star from Spider-Man: HomecomingHolland came to the table with a spin that is only evident in hindsight: What is the daredevil fortune hunter Nathan Drake’s origin story?
“We had a slap on the forehead moment,” Unexplored producer Alex Gartner of Atlas Entertainment recounts Reverse. “We knew we had to do it right. To be honest, as inspired as we were, it wasn’t until we turned over a new leaf and realized we had to tell a new story that it felt right.
“We wanted to tell the story from the beginning.”
Although the concept of an origin story has been explored in many superhero movies – which have dominated the box office for the better part of 20 years – the idea seemed fresh to Unexplored. It was a solution for all audiences, whether they had ever owned a PlayStation or not.
“We came to the conclusion that people playing video games were so immersed that when they watched a movie, they got bored,” Holland said. Reverse. “We wanted to tell the story from the beginning, a point of view that players didn’t see: Nathan and Sully’s first adventure.”
“The thing we struggle with is the idea that players have never seen this story before,” he continues. “And people who haven’t played the games don’t need it, because they’re getting to know the characters.”
” A big part of [Uncharted] was Tom Holland’s interest in playing this [role], and tell that story that hadn’t been in the games,” adds Gartner. “Because the games don’t cover that part of Nathan Drake’s life. It was the opportunity, the inspiration.
And so, six years after the game’s finale in 2016, Unexplored – a video game franchise deliberately inspired by blockbuster movies – comes full circle. February 18, Unexplored arrives from director Ruben Fleischer, with Holland adrift, Nathan Drake, 25, recruited by veteran explorer Sully (Mark Wahlberg, once the fandom’s popular choice to play Nathan) on a mission to recover Ferdinand Magellan’s lost gold .
“If you’re watching a movie that feels like someone’s playing a video game, that’s not fun.”
Fleischer, who signed on in January 2020 to direct a screenplay written by The wheel of time showrunner Rafe Judkins based on a draft by Iron Man writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, agree with Holland on the difficulties of video game adaptations.
“I think it’s boring just adapting video games to the big screen,” he says. “They are an active experience.”
The director says, “Let’s be honest. If you’re watching a movie that looks like someone is playing a video game, that’s no fun.
“It’s important to adapt any material you find an aspect of the source material that hasn’t been explored, or you shed light on something fans haven’t seen before.”
Regarding the film’s premise as an origin story, Fleischer says it wasn’t his decision, “but I think it was really smart.”
With principal photography slated to begin in March, Fleischer shot the original video game series in a matter of weeks.
“It was like cramming for tests in high school,” he says.
Fleischer had played the first game when it was initially released while “unemployed and childless” in 2007. But after the success of his first film zombieland in 2009, there was less time for video games.
“But once I got involved, I played every game to make sure I was aware of everything Nathan Drake had done,” Fleischer said. “I didn’t want to go into this movie without that familiarity.”
Turns out he’s had more time to catch up than he thought.
“It was like cramming for tests in high school.”
On the first day of principal photography in Germany on March 16, 2020, production halted due to a scary new pandemic: Covid-19.
“That’s basically when the shit hit the fan,” says Fleischer. “It has been an unprecedented and scary time for all of us.”
“Imagine all the years we tried to find the right chemistry to make the film,” says producer Charles Roven, who has been on the project since 2009. “Emotional anxiety, disappointment for Alex, myself, Avi [Arad, another producer]those of us who went through the entire pre-production period.
What followed was a half-summer of fear and uncertainty – and the possibility that Unexplored was not destined to find box office treasure.
Miraculously, Sony backed the film.
Filming resumed in July 2020, making it one of the first major Hollywood films to return to work that year. True to its title, Unexplored piloted many of the pandemic-watching practices common on other TV and film sets today, from daily Covid testing to setting quarantine periods to zoning out cast and crew.
“We were only learning about the gestation period of the disease,” Roven recalls. “I think we were one of the first to invent protocols where the guilds, unions and countries we visited would say ‘Okay, we’re with you.’ Many of these protocols have been adopted by other projects that have started.
“It was brand new ground for everyone involved,” says Fleischer. “Whether it was wearing masks and testing daily, or social distancing and having to limit the number of extras – it was all that no one had done before.”
“We only lost a day to Covid,” Roven says of post-July filming. “It was an incredibly bright light in what could have been a very cold time, and it was a cold time for many.”
Unexplored ignores the pandemic on camera. In the film, Nathan and Sully navigate exotic streets, lavish parties, and crowded underground raves, with no face masks in sight.
“The goal was to make a movie where that problem didn’t exist,” says Gartner. “We needed to have fun be a film fabric. “
“It looks like it could have been done at any time,” says Fleischer.
“We’ve lost one day to covid.
Despite all the challenges and the origin story scenario, Unexplored is still a movie based on a video game, and an incredibly popular movie. There is a mountain of expectations to climb. Speaking about his experience adapting comic book movies, Roven – whose production credits include get smart, The black Knight, and wonder woman — believes Unexplored may be the start of a better trajectory for movies based on video games.
“Making movies out of comics wasn’t the easiest thing in the world,” he says. “There were a lot of tries, and they didn’t work.”
Today, they are a dominant force at the box office.
The producers of Unexplored are not yet planning a PlayStation Cinematic Universe. For now, like all treasure hunts, the only destination that matters is the X that marks the spot.
“All of our energy went into making this as fun as possible,” says Gartner. “There are no pretensions here. The movie we decided to make is a great ride.
Unexplored hits theaters February 18.