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The Last of Us

****
2023

‘…while Pascal and Ramsey don’t look facially like the video-game characters of The Last of Us, they’re ideal choices for a rare tv show with attitude and punch that looks set to win over players and non-players alike…’

What could the end of the world look like? These days, there’s plenty of apocalyptic scenarios for us to fear; the one featured in director Craig Mazin’s opener for a ten part series for HBO feels both familiar and fresh. Somewhere between John Wyndham and Bioshock, The Last of Us is a survivalist epic, based on the essential Naughty Dog video game, that takes place in a world-gone-made where nature has taken over in the form of a mass fungal infection caused by climate change. Few actors are more ideally cast as a scientist explaining fungal infections in 1968 than John Hannah, and once this prologue is out of the way, we can jump into the main narrative and the enduring relationship between tough cookies Joel and Ellie.

It’s fairly laughable how many critics have lauded The Last of Us as a tv show that effectively dramatizes the game since the 80 minute opening episode barely depicts any scenes from the playable version at all; instead, we get a good half hour with Sarah, (Nico Parker), Joel’s doomed twelve year old daughter. Living in Austin, Texas circa 2003, Sarah spots the harbingers; radio murmurings, low flying military jets, a protective dog looking quizzically at a neighbour’s grandmother before she turns… Sarah secretly repairs her father’s watch for his birthday, stealing his money to do so before confessing; she’s an ‘honest thief’ and ready for the world of hard transactions that she and her dad stand on the edge of as the apocalypse arrives on cue. Players of the game will know why we spend so much time establishing Sarah here; as houses burn and jets fall from the sky, her father simply cannot save her, and he will have to wait 20 years for any kind of redemption.

So as with the game, we jump forward a couple of decades to a sh*tshow 2023 substantially worse than the one we’re living through, Joel, a Desert Storm veteran played by Pablo Pascal, is now a smuggler navigating his way on a transactional basis between militaristic authorities and the Firefly terrorist group; he describes a life of ‘bullets and pills’. In a narrative that always had a little John Wayne about it, from The Searchers to True Grit, Joel agrees to transport Ellie (Bella Ramsey, yes, Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch) to safety, but there’s plenty of bloaters and clickers lurking in the urban dystopia…

The Last of Us was a somewhat revolutionary game; after childish unlimited lives and ammo fantasies, grim-fest The Last of Us was more about desperately trying to fashion a shiv out of a pair of rusty scissors on the floor of a dingy basement. That hard-scrabble feel was always cinematic, reflected in the Gore Lieberman T shirt sported here, although it’ll be hard to the tv show to reflect the well-balanced view taken of Joel and Ellie’s changing relationship in the game; another game-changer was swapping between the two, not only fighting assailants as Ellie but riding to the rescue as Joel, and then vice versa. With nine episodes to go, there’s plenty of time for this kind of sophistication; for now, co-creators Mazin and Neil Druckman has done a fine job of keeping the personal and emotional stakes high and the action tight and intense.

‘They got a kid,’ Joel’s brother says as he sees a bedraggled family by the side of the road ,’So do we, keep driving…’ replies Joel; one of the elements that made The Last of Us so effective was the sense of responsibility and empathy that it created in players, and The Last of Us sets out its stall correctly with a focus on how Joel and Elie might just learn from each other, even if they’re the last people on earth. While Pascal and Ramsey don’t look facially like the video-game characters of The Last of Us, they’re ideal choices for a rare tv show with attitude and punch that looks set to win over players and non-players alike. So grab a rucksack, a shiv and hold your nerve; The Last of Us looks like a winning adventure for us all.

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  1. I feel like I and Mrs. Chess are the last two people on Earth who haven’t watched this yet. The advertising is at a super-high-saturation level. Have no issue with it being based on a video game I have no knowledge of, but it really doesn’t do anything for me subject-wise, maybe because it is highly probable it might happen in real life.

    • This really doesn’t attempt to cover the sane ground as the video game on a scene by scene basis. And it’s a character piece, old school and also modern, with two strong characters you can take to. If they keep the big story beats from the game, it’ll be a very moving narrative. Don’t let the ads put you off, this is top drawer stuff…

  2. I know absolutely nothing — nada, zilch, zero — about video games. The last video game I played was some version of Mario Brothers on the original Nintendo. But I won’t hold that against this, which sounds good. I actually do have an HBO Max subscription at the moment, so I may just give this a try.

    • Yes! Think Bogart in African Queen. Think Rooster Cogburn. Think John Ford, but not played by David Lynch. Embrace new IP. Enjoy new characters and situations. Welcome to the 2023 party, we’ve been waiting for you!

  3. Oh, the Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch. That Mildred Hubble. Got ya.

    Are these zombies or mushroom people?

    I’ve heard lots of raves about this but the trailer looks just like every other post-apocalypse show, and that was a genre that felt played out ten or twenty years ago. Since it’s HBO though it might actually show up on DVD so I’ll probably catch it then.

    • The game is great, and yes, however bad life seems right now, Joel and Ellie have it far worse!

  4. It is always nice when a director and co try to adapt an ip into movieland and they do it in such a way that shows they actually care about said ip AND the already existing fanbase.

    Not being a videogamer, I’ve only heard of this. But if it’s successful, maybe some other directors and moneymen will take note on HOW to adapt an ip and repeat the success. We can only hope…

    • I’ve played this game and it’s awesome. Great characters, great story, a life-changing experience! And as you say, this may be the one time that they’re respected the IP and developed it well for tv. Should be on disc later this year….

  5. Watched this last night, know nothing about the game so it stands well on its own without that baggage. We will let a few episodes build up and then start on them. Bella Ramsey, Lyana Mormont in Game of Thrones, she was excellent, don’t know this Mildred Hubble character.

    • Yup, as a feature length pilot, this did a great job. Like you, I’ll probably wait for a few episodes to build up before looking again. These are iconic characters who already mean a great deal to many; this tv show is made with genuine care, and should introduce Joe and Ellie to a brand new audience. Ramsey will always by Mildred Hubble in my house.

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