This is the end of the so-called video game curse, as The Last of Us from Sky Atlantic – launching on January 16 – is a masterpiece, as is the source material.
When PlayStation creator Naughty Dog released The Last of Us in 2013, it seemed like a passionate retort to Roger Ebert’s claim that video games “can never be art.”
Visually stunning and maturely written, it was a compelling, character-driven epic that took narrative to heights rarely seen in games, even if the story itself – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with added zombies – wasn’t entirely unique. The Last of Us is usually cited when debating whether games can be as good as movies and shows, so when HBO first announced it would bring it to TV, expectations (and expectations) were at their peak.
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Set in post-apocalyptic America, The Last of Us tells the story of Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler and black market dealer tasked with escorting 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the States. 20 years earlier, a worldwide epidemic caused by a mutated fungus destroyed human civilization.
Watch The Last Of Us trailer
Zombie-like creatures known as the “infected” roam the Earth as the remnants of the population try to survive in oppressive, militarized quarantine zones. Those two decades hardened Joel. He was anesthetized by the environment after a terrible loss on the night of the outbreak.
At first, Joel reluctantly embraces his traveling companion and sees only “special cargo” in her. Ellie, on the other hand, is afraid of the grouch who is supposed to be her protector throughout the trip.
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Over time, their arduous journey through a land full of bandits and beasts creates a strong bond between them. Despite Joel’s jaded skepticism, he grows fond of Ellie’s innocent enthusiasm and determination to see their mission through. Their struggles from one dangerous situation to another only strengthen their collective determination, and you can’t help but immerse yourself completely in their burgeoning relationship.
Already familiar with each other through their work on Game of Thrones, Pascal and Ramsey share an undeniable chemistry that serves as the emotional core of The Last of Us. Given what Joel has been through, Pascal plays him with a bitter sadness emanating from the screen.
It’s devastatingly clear that he’s struggling to contain the sadness that has consumed him for years. Ramsey, on the other hand, has fun as the brash Ellie, who begins her adventure as a precocious teen still dealing with the outside world.
Over time, we see her slowly becoming aware of the horrors around them, with one particular incident (in the amazing penultimate episode of the season) scaring her worldview and forcing her to grow up faster than she ever hoped. Coupled with a gripping soundtrack by two-time Oscar-winner (and original game composer) Gustavo Santaolalla, it’s hard not to be moved when they share a tender moment.
The central plot of The Last of Us was already good enough to be an HBO series, but it helps Craig Mazin, the Chernobyl showrunner, has experience navigating the tragedy and the impact it has on the human psyche.
Together with game developer Neil Druckmann, they succeed where so many adaptations have failed: expanding on the source material while staying true to it. From the start, we get an insight into how the breaking news of a potential contagion is affecting the city’s populace, and the stories of some memorable side characters are further developed – with an early episode sure to subvert any expectations you may have of the show.
While the brutal violence synonymous with the game has been reduced here, dedicated fans will still appreciate the similarities between the two iterations in dialogue, tone, and dramatic focus.
This radical deviation is a stark reminder that The Last of Us was never about monsters taking over the world, but about how humans would affect such a cataclysm. It’s a heartbreaking story that explores sadness and how it drives people to do terrible things in tragic circumstances. In the season finale, it becomes painfully obvious that gray morality is the dominant ethos of this unforgiving universe, and you have to wonder if you would have made the same decisions as our tragic heroes.
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For a long time, attempts to alchemize games for the big and small screen resulted in a lot of mediocre offerings. In addition to the Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog movies, the live-action adaptations from Street Fighter to Resident Evil have been met with ridicule and derision.
However, The Last of Us’s complex, emotional story has always been perfect for a TV season. Cynical fans and critics deeply fond of the game’s history won’t be disappointed, and what was once a groundbreaking PlayStation game may very well become HBO’s next big hit.
The Last of Us can be seen on Sky Atlantic and NOW from January 16. Watch the trailer.