By Ben Konuch
“Billions of puppets with poisoned minds fixed on one unifying goal: to spread the infection to every human alive by any means necessary. And there are no treatments for this, no preventatives, no cures, it’s not even possible to make them.”
When I was fourteen, I was able to experience PlayStation’s “The Last of Us” for the first time, and it changed how I looked at storytelling. When the game was first released in 2013, what first appeared as a fairly generic zombie game won the attention and love of gamers.
The game showed that it was about so much more than just killing or surviving, as it told a gut-wrenching personal story about love, loss and humanity. Playing it for the first time and feeling the emotions of the twists, pain, and losses, as well as bonding with the fantastically written characters, made me realize for the first time how stories have the capacity to make us feel something meaningful.
After ten years “The Last of Us” has earned its place as a genre-defining game with over 17 million copies sold, plus a remaster and a sequel, and now the game has finally received a live-action adaptation in the form of an HBO Max original series. “The Last of Us” series is helmed by Craig Mazin, the mastermind behind 2019’s “Chernobyl” miniseries, and stars Pedro Pascal as Joel, a hardened survivor living in a destroyed world who must leave one of the last safe zones in order to take a mysterious young girl, played by Bella Ramsey, to a group of freedom fighters.
From the earliest glimpses at the series and its production, “The Last of Us” gets it right. Not only is Craig Mazin a talented director, but the video game’s creator director Niel Druckmann joins him as a co-director of the series. This leadership team ensures that “The Last of Us” is a work of passion from two people who care immensely about this story, and it shows in every aspect of the premiere episode, starting with its writing and production value.
This is “The Last of Us,” raw and unfiltered. The premiere episode covers the events of the first few hours of gameplay and does a triumphant job of introducing its world, story and themes in its tight 80-minute runtime. The series keeps the pivotal things about the story but fills in the background details with fascinating new context and slightly tweaked events to satisfy the fans by delivering a new tint to the story they love. Its opening twenty minutes alone contain so many direct visual callbacks to the game, even shot-for-shot reenactments at times, that I felt like I was experiencing it for the first time all over again.
With a production value that would make “The Walking Dead” blush, “TLOU” has brought its world alive in vivid, beautiful and brutal form. The set designs are exquisitely produced to give the world the feeling of having endured twenty years of hell while still showing the marks of life that survivors have made on it. Smart camera work in tense scenes gives the series a genuine feeling of tension, and while I may be slightly disappointed that the premiere is light on action, its slow-burn plot building keeps your engagement focused on more than just the fantastic writing.
Die-hard fans of the game did complain when casting for the series was released, as Pedro Pascal is a different ethnicity than Joel is presented as in the game and so are the actors who play his brother Tommy and daughter Sarah. That being said, Pascal absolutely owns the role of Joel, flawlessly stepping into this character’s shoes while making subtle tweaks in his performance to still make the role uniquely his. Pascal is a master of nonverbal acting, and Joel’s quiet, bitter nature shines through the screen. Tommy and Sarah are both portrayed beautifully by Gabriel Luna and Nico Parker in ways that will satisfy longtime fans but also cause newcomers to connect and fall in love with their characters.
Bella Ramsey is also a knockout addition to the cast as Ellie, and while she doesn’t look as close to her game counterpart as other cast members do, her performance is already earning my love and appreciation as she gives off the same energy and feel that the Ellie of the games has.
It’s immensely hard for me to find flaws with “The Last of Us” series from a fan’s perspective, as I only have a few nitpicky comments. One of those is that the first episode does lack a bit of the action that marked the opening of the game, and it takes a while to establish Joel as a hardened and violent survivor. That being said, the series picks its moment to unleash Joel, giving a big character payoff, so I do appreciate the thought and significance put into the choice.
Similarly, the context for why Joel has to take Ellie out of the city is tweaked from the games, this time having Joel looking for a car battery so he can find his brother instead of just looking for his stolen weapons. While small, this chance does show much earlier on that Joel is a layered man who is selfish and hardened, but does still have the capacity to love others, but I feel as though this change does take away some of the initial reservations about Joel’s character that you start with in the games.
In short, “The Last of Us” is a triumph of video game adaptations and a beautiful standalone addition to the post-apocalyptic genre. Expensive and detailed environments give the series a unique visual identity and seeds of strong writing and heavy character work have laid the foundation for a tense and exciting ride – all before we even see our first Clicker.
It’s my pleasure to give “The Last of Us” a 9.5/10
“The Last of Us” episode one is now streaming on HBO Max
Ben Konuch is a sophomore Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.
Images courtesy of HBO Max