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The Last of Us – better than any video game adaption deserves to be

The Last of Us – better than any video game adaption deserves to be
Nico Parker in 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied

Halfway through the release of its first season, HBO’s post-apocalyptic survival drama is already being lauded as one of the best video-game adaptations yet.

The Last of Us:

In a nutshell

The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic survival drama adapted from a 2013 video game. The series is set in a dystopian version of 2023, 20 years after civilisation fell to a global pandemic – the world is ravaged by a fungus that has evolved to survive the warm climate of the human body and “enslave” its hosts to spread the infection at any cost.

Pedro Pascal (Narcos, The Mandalorian) plays Joel, a smuggler who attempts to navigate warring fascist factions, guerilla resistance groups, and hordes of the infected zombie-like creatures to transport a feisty teenage girl played by Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials)

Pedro Pascal in 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied

Pedro Pascal in ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied

Bella Ramsey in 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied

Bella Ramsey in ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied

Where to watch it

Episodes are released on Mondays on Showmax – the series was halfway through its first season at time of publication.

What’s the vibe?

In terms of its setting and premise, there are obvious comparisons to be made between The Last of Us and popular zombie apocalypse thriller-dramas like The Walking Dead or Black Summer; the baiting of jump-scares in suspense scenes and the constant unnerving proximity of danger is also similar.

However, The Last of Us takes a different approach to violence and gore, which is present, but only to progress conflict in the plot. It certainly doesn’t revel in the “justified brutality” that was sold in the original video game or in series like The Walking Dead. What it doesn’t hold back on is freaky, sci-fi body-horror, which is reminiscent of the 2018 film Annihilation, and pretty unsettling (although occasionally the movement and sounds of the infected are amusingly similar to that of a velociraptor).

When it comes to stylisation and writing, the series has a lot in common with HBO’s Chernobyl, which was also written by Craig Mazen and takes a slow, gloomy, character-focused approach to disaster. But The Last of Us probably has the most in common with series like The Witcher, Sweet Tooth, or The Mandalorian for that matter, in that they are built around the slow-growing reluctant partnership of convenience of an unlikely pair in a dangerous world – a hardcore, stoic closet-softie and a precocious child who for one reason or another is special. 

'The Last of Us' doesn’t hold back on body-horror. Image: HBO / Supplied

‘The Last of Us’ doesn’t hold back on body-horror. Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied

A closer look

Adapting a film or series from a video game is a pretty sure-fire way to create an action-based B-rate blockbuster. World building and quality writing are important for most good games, but the priority is to facilitate enjoyable gameplay, so the storylines of films and series based on games are often boringly simple or frustratingly convoluted, and the transition from one format to the other has tended to work better in the other direction. 

The Last of Us is HBO’s first video-game adaption and is already being lauded as one of the best yet by viewers and critics alike, which probably has a lot to do with the eccentricities of the game it’s built on. Rather than the more standard process of writing a narrative to add colour to the kind of game they wanted to produce, game developers Naughty Dog conceived a game fitting the kind of story they wanted to tell.

It was rooted in personal experiences rather than the epic scale of a zombie apocalypse, so there was investment in the characters, not just winning the game. Over and above the more typical combat mechanics, players were sometimes incentivised to avoid combat, or made to play as Ellie, the teenage girl, so what constituted “winning” was survival, and more relatable than simply massacring zombie NPCs. 

This realism is translated with devastating emotional impact in the investment pumped into the characters at the beginning of the series despite our niggling instinct that something awful is going to happen to them very soon. Only halfway through the first season and we have already fallen in love with so many characters who have come and gone from the main storyline in the blink of an eye. 

No doubt the series is a huge career moment for 18-year-old actress Nico Parker, whose big eyes communicate an unbelievably expressive array of emotion and intelligence in her few onscreen moments playing Joel’s daughter. Anna Torv is a powerhouse as Joel’s hardened smuggler partner Tess, a level-headed, grounding presence and a source of compassion in the gloom. 

A scene from 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

Anna Torv in 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

Anna Torv in ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

The entire duration of an early episode of the series is spent opening and closing the story of two isolated characters. Their tranquil existence is only peripherally relevant to Joel and Ellie’s journey and yet that episode holds a tragic and beautiful philosophy of life that recontextualises the entire series because it really has nothing at all to do with sensational zombie battles or apocalyptic science fiction. It’s about love and the trauma we experience when desperation forces us to be distrustful of others; the clash between our social nature as a species and the overwhelming instinct to survive. 

Writers Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann don’t exaggerate the obvious link between the post-apocalyptic show and the real stress we share living in the aftermath of a pandemic, but the panic and mistrust and misinformation about what authorities and medical professionals to heed certainly feels familiar. 

The stress is perfectly balanced with dynamic cinematography. In the first episode, directed by Mazin, Joel and his loved ones drive frantically through the streets, trying to escape the furiously spreading outbreak. The scene is filmed from inside the truck so that you lurch back and forth with every jerking turn to avoid burning cars and screaming pedestrians – a more literal example of how Mazin and Druckmann do everything in their power to position you as an agent inside this fictional world rather than a voyeuristic observer. 

Stylistically, The Last of Us does a lot to break away from the trapping of its parent genres. Between the detail and sensitivity of its writing and the electricity of its excellent cast (particularly that of Pascal as our compassionate antihero and Ramsey as a sarcastic source of vibrancy in the darkness) it will have you hooked after one sitting. 

A scene from 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from 'The Last of Us'. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

A scene from ‘The Last of Us’. Image: HBO / Supplied Image: HBO / Supplied

Viewer warnings:

The series is less graphic and disturbing than audiences have become accustomed to within the genre, but probably a bad pick for squeamish viewers. With a peppering of violence, nudity, swearing and some pretty dark themes, it’s not ideal for children either. DM/ML

The Last of Us is available in South Africa on Showmax. You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

In case you missed it, also read Keep an eye out – movie awards, Valentine’s romcoms, dark comedies and more coming this month

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