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Photo: ‘The Last of Us’
To say that HBO’s newest primetime series ‘The Last of Us’ had a particularly high bar to clear would be an understatement. For starters, the show is a direct adaptation of one of the most critically lauded video games in history. The original 2013 ‘The Last of Us’ game was universally heralded as an unparalleled masterpiece in both game design and writing, and a watershed moment for the potential of mature cinematic storytelling in the medium of video games. The emotional journey that the game’s lead characters Joel and Ellie go on (and thus the gamer alongside them), touched audiences in such a profound and singular way that it is difficult to imagine their story ever being improved by a retelling.
It’s also no secret that the history of video game adaptations, by and large, has been more than a little disappointing. The genre has shown some signs of vitality lately, with Netflix’s excellent one-two-punch of animated adaptations in ‘Castlevania’ and ‘Arcane.’ But virtually every other video game adaption in recent memory has either felt like a square peg desperately trying to fit into a round hole, or worse, a blatantly frivolous exercise in capitalizing on the corporate recognition of a brand name. The precious few quality adaptations that we have gotten succeeded because they made an earnest attempt to capture the essential essence of their given source material, and transpose it into a strictly narrative format like film or television.
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In this 90-minute premiere episode, creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have done just that, and then some. ‘The Last of Us’ is gloriously faithful to the tone of the original game, but it never requires its audience to be well-versed in any kind of pre-existing lore. From the start, this show sets out to tell a grounded story about the frailty of the human condition, as well as humanity’s remarkable capacity for hope, even in the bleakest of scenarios. Like the game, ‘The Last of Us’ opens with an absolute emotional gut-punch, which immediately establishes the depth of tragedy that this story is going to explore. From there, it begins depicting all of the grim and disquieting realities that a global-pandemic of this kind would actually spawn. But more specifically, the story is interested in investigating how its cast of flawed, morally ambiguous characters are all fundamentally changed by the falling of their world. If ‘The Last of Us’ continues to deliver episodes of this quality week-after-week, the show will easily become one of HBO’s best original series in years, and unquestionably, the best live-action video game adaption of all time.
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From Game to Screen
Neil Druckmann, the creator and director of both ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘The Last of Us: Part 2’ games, deserves the lion’s share of credit for bringing this series to life. The concept for the world, the characters, and the story of TLOU was Druckmann’s from the start and all of his collaborators on this adaptation clearly showed up to help him realize his vision to the fullest. Druckmann is the long-time creative force behind some of Naughty Dog Studios most accomplished games (‘Jak and Daxter’, ‘Uncharted’), and the impact of having his direct creative oversight on the creation of this show, from soup to nuts, cannot be overstated. Druckmann, working in direct collaboration with ‘Chernobyl’ showrunner Craig Mazin, brings an overwhelming emotional realism and a sobering scientific rationale to the post-apocalyptic milieu. In the show’s opening scene, a pair of scientists who are guests appearing on a late-60’s Dick Cavett-esque talk show, discuss the calamitous potential of a fungal-based global outbreak, in which an actually-existing, mind-altering virus called Cordyceps, makes the jump from the animal kingdom to humanity, a-la the cross-species spreading of the bubonic plague. This virus wouldn’t just wipe out the majority of humanity, it would literally enter the very crevices of our psyche, turning us into rabid, feral, fungal monstrosities. Of course, this is precisely the fate that humanity will go on to have.
After the premiere’s devastating opening sequence (a thirty-minute prologue set in 2003 which follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) the day before the Cordyceps virus explodes), a time jump of over twenty years occurs, thrusting the audience into a disturbingly accurate post-pandemic hellscape. Terrifying clinical details that mimic the now, all-too-familiar, actual response to a global pandemic are visible all across the world of ‘The Last of Us’ – e.g. signs detailing the tell-tale symptoms of the Cordyceps virus read “Muscle Spasms, Coughing, Slurred Speech, Mood Change” and a gut-wrenching exchange between two key characters who are having the quintessential “How do we know we don’t have it?” conversation that so many faced at the outset of COVID-19.
Those who have managed to survive in this new world, now live under a fascistic government enforced martial law, barely scraping by on the margins of the black market, tossing dead bodies into flaming pyres that line the streets of the makeshift shanty towns. In terms of the show’s overall visual design and its realization of the specific aesthetic world that ‘The Last of Us’ games have cultivated, it passes with flying colors in every conceivable aspect. Though this opening episode only provides a brief glimpse of what’s to come, the effects that we do see of the various stages of the Cordyceps virus, are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The fungus-inspired race of infected zombies created in ‘The Last of Us’ is the game’s signature visual innovation, and so far, the beautifully grotesque design that was established in the game has been realized tremendously on screen in this show.
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The cast of the ‘The Last of Us’ had some legitimately big shoes to fill. To die hard fans of the games, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson (both of whom are set to appear in the show in a supporting capacity) are the essential voices of Joel and Ellie. They, and the rest of the original voice cast, created indelible versions of these characters that fans of the series developed a profound connection with while playing. Luckily, every new performer involved in this adaptation of ‘The Last of Us’, from co-leads Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, to its distinguished cast of supporting character actors, inhabit these roles with their own unique senses of emotional specificity, while still directly honoring the key characteristics found in the original performances of the characters that they are now embodying. Bella Ramsey, who fans may recognize from her standout role in ‘Game of Thrones’ as the precocious Lady of Bear Island Lyanna Mormont, and arguably had the most difficult job in the entire cast: bringing the game’s most iconic character of Ellie to life in live-action.
From her first scene, Ramsey conveys the potent mixture of deep pathos and unadulteratedly sarcastic spunk that has always defined this beloved character. She instantaneously feels at home in the character’s blood-soaked shoes, immediately dispelling any doubts about her ability to make the role her own. Pascal, of ‘The Mandalorian’ fame, delivers an equally resonant version of Joel, a man who has his soul torn apart from the outset of the story, and faces an escalating series of tragic circumstances that exacerbate his cold and calculated survivalist mentality in the ensuing apocalypse. The character of Tess, Joel’s apparent lover and partner-in-crime, played by Anna Torv of ‘Mindhunter,’ is actualized brilliantly in her introduction. The first time we see her, Tess is captured, being held against her will, and yet her captor is fearfully negotiating with her, in order to ensure that she doesn’t come back on him twice as hard after he releases her. Every key character from Marlene (Merle Dandridge), the unrelenting but morally principled leader of the rebel organization “The Fireflies,” to Joel’s now-missing brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), is portrayed with genuine emotional nuance and a discernible sense of history and personal loss.
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Look For The Light
Those who have played the game know that Joel and Ellie’s treacherous cross-country odyssey has only just begun and that the story’s most potent thrills, horrors, and heartbreaks have not yet come to pass. As Joel, Ellie, and Tess pass under the torn chain-link fence into the untamed wilds of the post-apocalyptic American wasteland, long time fans of ‘The Last of Us’ can’t help but look-on with bated breath, basking in the amazing realization that this story, and this video game adaptation, for once, is actually going to receive the necessary level of care and attention that it deserves. Hallelujah!
Creators: Neil Druckman, Craig Mazin.
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey, Gabriel Luna, Merle Dandridge, Jeffery Pierce, Anna Torv, Murray Bartlett, Nick Offerman.
By Dillon Goss-Carpenter
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Dillon is a writer, and a lover of storytelling and creativity across all mediums. He studied Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, where he became a voracious consumer and ponderer of the creative arts. He has a background in screenwriting, as well as freelance film theory and pop culture journalism. Dillon connected to the inclusive, empowering mission statement of The Hollywood Insider, because of his shared belief in the power of storytelling, and its facility to engender empathy and understanding, as well as entertain. He believes in finding joy and purpose through making, watching, discussing, and dissecting the diverse collection of creative media that inspires him. He has particular interest in stories that come from largely unheard, historically excluded perspectives.