The problem of adventure film colonialism, explained

Often based on no historical fact, adventure stories like Indiana Jones and Uncharted tend to wrestle with the same issues over and over again.

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Uncharted, now playing in theaters.

Adventure movies have been around almost since the dawn of cinema, depicting characters in fantastical situations that have brought many people on the big screen to experience those thrills. Yet, of IndianaJones for UnexploredHollywood has fed the public with stories that lack historical accuracy and unfortunately reflect how history has treated its true treasures.

In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan came up with a new kind of hero, loosely inspired by pop culture movies, TV series and Disneyland rides, but not real archaeologists. Yet, most likely unwittingly, Indiana Jones became the figure that represented what a truly adventurous archaeologist should be. Although many things in the IndianaJones the films are based on real locations and stories, the filmmakers took many non-factual script liberties. The Raiders of the Lost Ark became the highest-grossing film of 1981, and it defined the adventure films that followed. But they got trapped in the same structures found in the story.


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Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Tomb Raider and now Unexplored tell a similar story, of whites traveling to territories populated by non-whites to explore and steal their treasures, but usually hidden under a plot of good versus evil. In examining history, many foreign artifacts were brought to imperialist European nations solely in terms of relevance to European history. The rationale was often that in the name of science and preservation, they rescued artifacts of ancient and glorious civilizations from careless locals, studied them, displayed them in museums, and educated the world.



Tom Holland Uncharted Poster

Today, the story is upside down. Museums began to return these treasures to their respective nations. But like Unexplored proves, Hollywood has not yet caught up. One could argue that Unexplored is simply an entertaining film based on a popular video game that deals with the same narrative as its namesake. But in truth, the film adaptation deals with deeper themes. Nathan, played by Tom Holland, and his brother Sam, played by Rudy Pankow, proudly believe they are descendants of famed explorer Francis Drake. But Drake wasn’t just an explorer; he was also a cunning politician, privateer and slave trader. And it was he who equaled the second round the world, whose first expedition, led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan and the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elkano, is the center of the Unexplored the plot of the film.


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However, unlike the film, Magellan’s expedition never involved gold treasure. Magellan’s expedition was about power, the power to own the possibilities of ocean travel and to control the spice trade. Spices, back then, were the modern equivalent of the greatest of treasures. Of course, in the movie, Magellan’s expedition is downplayed as just a search for gold. The film claims that the treasure was lost somewhere in the Philippines, and each character in Unexplored goes in search and recovery when there is no right.


In these many stories where nothing is done for the sake of historical accuracy, maybe it’s time to flip some genre paradigms and start listening to the changes happening in the world. Give the audience real facts backed by research, even if they’re mixed in with fantasy. The adventure genre doesn’t need to lose its charm, but it could do with an update.

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