Video game fans seeking live action adaptations of their favorite franchises have grown accustomed to settling for “good enough.”
Besides, given the higher end quality of top tier video games it’s unlikely they could match the immersive blockbuster feel players get while experiencing the thrills as an active participant.
Like Uncharted or God of War, The Last of Us is an elite level, system selling game experience seemingly set for a decent if inadequate live-action series.
But a funny thing happens almost right away from the start of HBO’s adaptation of Last of Us — it actually gets it right. The sense of dread, uneasiness conveyed in every darkened corridor up ahead and broken down by life mentality of the pitifully few survivors is all here.
A few more episodes will be needed to solidify the statement but on first impression, The Last of Us looks to be the best video game adaptation yet.
Confession time: I sunk many hours playing The Last of Us and it’s easily among my Top 5 games of this previous console generation so I had high, if particularly unfair, hopes for the series.
Knowing that game writer Neil Druckmann is serving as co-showrunner (with Director Craig Mazin) was another encouraging sign. Similar to The Walking Dead adaptation from comic books to TV, Druckmann understands the importance of not doing a scene-by-scene adaptation of the game.
Some elements that were rushed through in the game can have a little more time to play out in a TV series. That shakes out right away with a foreboding interview discussing a global pandemic back in the 1960s.
Fast forward to 2003.
Joel (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian) is bracing for another long shift with his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna, Agents of SHIELD), but he’s got to get home early enough to actually celebrate his birthday with his daughter, Sarah (a likable Nico Parker).
Pascal and Parker immediately establish a clear bond between their characters. It’s not the most traditional father/daughter relationship, but there’s an obvious deep love here and foreshadows the heart of the series.
The day starts off normal enough, but Sarah is getting increasingly leery of the amount of police cars, emergency vehicles and even jets speeding off to the horizon. And something definitely doesn’t seem right over at her neighbor’s house as the near comatose grandmother starts making bizarre movements and sounds.
By the time Joel returns home, the carnage has fully erupted and people are acting out of their minds. Joel and his family don’t know a viral outbreak has begun, but Joel isn’t worried about his neighbors or strangers along the road —- his focus is Sarah.
This outbreak isn’t turning people into zombies but puppets of a fungus that’s changing them into rabid rage monsters. They’re not lumbering around aimlessly either and pursue their prey relentlessly.
Limiting the straight from the game moments allows those rare scenes to have more impact such as the Sarah POV shot from Tommy’s truck. Mazin keeps the true scope of horror in the distance. There’s plenty of time to get to that later and maintaining some mystery about what’s playing out proves a savvy decision.
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Following a horrific tragedy, the show jumps ahead another 20 years. Joel is now part of a community that’s established a strict quarantine zone in Boston to prevent against the infected and insurrection.
A pocket insurgent group, the Fireflies, is disrupting the peace forcing the zone’s military force to take drastic measures.
Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who voiced the character in the game), the leader of the zone’s Fireflies, might have the key to something far more important than overthrowing the military. And that key is held within a young girl, Elle (Bella Ramsey, Game of Thrones).
Ramsey gets to show a greater range of emotions than her scene-stealing GOT character Lyanna Mormont. She’s teen-appropriate snarky yet shows a vulnerability to suggest some of her intensity is just bluster. Joel isn’t concerned about any of this as he’s trying to find Tommy, who’s gone missing. With his girlfriend, Tess (Anna Torv, Fringe), Joel is set to leave the zone to rescue Tommy when they run into a wounded Marlene.
In no condition to take Elle to a safe place outside the zone, Marlene convinces Joel and Tess to carry out the escort mission in exchange for some desperately needed weapons and supplies.
Pascal and Ramsey’s interactions this episode area limited, but there’s enough here to suggest their dynamic is going to be one of the strongest TV pairings this year.
The production work is strong. Set designs convey an apocalyptic setting that’s more dusty than totally devoid of color. Mazin establishes an environment where people are just going through the motions or fighting for something they believe in for a glimmer of hope like the Fireflies.
Joel isn’t sure if he has much hope these days, but in escorting Elle he at least has a purpose. In this bleak landscape that just might be enough.
The Last of Us is off to a fantastic start and seems poised to be HBO’s next huge breakout hit.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: HBO
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