Modern-day gaming has become an increasingly immersive experience, and with fanbases that rival that of even the most popular movie franchises, it was inevitable that the line between the video game and television industries would continue to blur. Because of this, AAA games (high-budget, high profile games, usually made by well known publishers) and major streaming providers are a killer combo (on paper, at least). One such combo is HBO Max's newest entry in the game-turned-TV series arena: The Last of Us.
Based on the hyper-popular PlayStation Studios game of the same name, The Last of Uswas developed for television by Chernobyl executive producer Craig Mazin, and Neil Druckman, who also wrote the original game for legendary developer Naughty Dog. Starring Games of Thrones alumni Pedro Pascal (pictured at top) and Bella Ramsey, The Last of Us follows a hardened survivor who's becomes responsible for the safety of a 14-year-old girl who, after a global pandemic, may be humanity's last hope.
To provide a little backstory, in 2003, a fungus in the genus cordyceps mutates enough to go from solely infecting insects to infecting human beings as well. Once infected, the fungus takes control of one's central nervous system and floods the brain with hallucinogens that turn normal people into hostile, cannibalistic creatures that spread the fungal infection primarily through bites. This causes a global pandemic, the likes of which we only scratched the surface of with COVID. The opening scene of this adaptation paints a clear picture of exactly how dire humanity's situation would be in such a case, through a 1968 late night interview with a foreboding gentleman named Dr. Neuman (John Hannah) who describes how scientifically unpreventable and hopelessly untreatable an epidemic of that nature would be.
Fast forward to 2023, and the human race is in much worse shape than it was before. The surviving sections of major cities are governed by militaristic martial law, the infected and even potentially infected are terminated and disposed of, and the outside world is filled with deadly swarms of infected rebel groups, and slavers. It's I Am Legend, Mad Max and The Walking Dead all rolled into one out there, and the series more or less nails that. This thing hits all the notes of the original so well that the judgy little voice in my head was left with nothing else to say but "wow." It was a truly enjoyable experience.
This isn't the first time a video game has been turned into a TV series. Not too long ago, I reviewed Amazon Prime Video's adaptation of Microsoft's uber-popular Halo series (developed by 343 Industries and Bungie Inc), and while it seemed to have plenty of potential in the beginning, its first season ended to somewhat mixed reviews. Well, there is nothing mixed about my opinion of The Last of Us: This show is best case scenario when it comes to honoring one's source material. The music, the set design and the masterful lighting all fully reflect the master strokes and attention to detail of Naughty Dog's original production. Anyone who's ever played the original game, or anything from the Uncharted series, knows exactly what I'm talking about.
Now, when it comes to music and visuals, nothing beats the intro to this series. While the show's opening titles are scored by an original piece, it's still one that is heavily inspired by the instrumentation and tonal soundscape of the game. Visually, the intro invokes a feeling not too dissimilar from that of HBO's Westworld. There's a sort of double-entendre energy to the growing fungi resembling images related to the series that shares a kindred spirit with that of the aforementioned sci-fi hit.
The casting on The Last of Us is next level, as well. Marlene, the leader of the rebel group the Fireflies, is played by Merle Dandridge, who also played the same role in the video game (as well as Alex Vance in the critically acclaimed first-person shooter Half-Life 2). She's actually the only actor from the game to remain in the same role in the adaptation. Jeffrey Pierce plays a character named Perry in the show, but in the game voiced main character Joel's brother Tommy (on TV, Tommy is played by Gabriel Luna of Terminator: Dark Fate fame). Speaking of Joel, Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in the game, appears as the host of The Last of Us original series podcast. Notably, Ashley Johnson, who played main character Ellie in the game, also appears in the show as someone else -- a yet-to-be-introduced character named Anna Williams.
Outside of those that were involved with the original game, the cast also includes the likes of Candy's Melanie Lynskey, Euphoria's Storm Reid, The Green Mile's Graham Greene, The White Lotus' Murray Bartlett and Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman, among others.
Like everything I've seen Pedro Pascal in lately, The Last of Us is a quality piece of entertainment, and as dope as it is to see this thing as a fan of the game, I imagine the experience will still be just as enthralling for newcomers to the franchise. This story is suspenseful and gripping as hell, and regardless of what form it finds itself in, whether it's that of a game, TV show, or manga, that will remain the case. Whether or not this series will continue to live up to the height of its freshly raised bar remains to be seen, although something tells me that it won't be much of a problem.
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