Last of Us proves a winning crossover combo
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The Last of Us, a best-selling 2013 videogame set against a post-apocalyptic landscape, is now a nine-episode HBO series (on Crave, Sundays at 8 p.m.).
For anyone who remembers the early days of videogame adaptations — the inept live-action Super Mario Bros. Movie, the doomed Doom, the so-bad-it’s-really-bad In the Name of the King — it might seem unlikely that a series with videogame roots has ended up on the premier platform for prestige TV.
But games have become increasingly deep, complex and textured in both their narratives and visuals in recent years. Meanwhile, movies and TV have been treating the end-of-the-world genre with a new level of gravitas, in films like Children of Men and The Road and series like The Leftovers, Station Eleven and The Walking Dead (“it’s not about the zombies”).
In The Last of Us, the two forms converge, with spectacular horror and real emotional resonance, to become the first breakout hit of 2023.
Bringing together game creator Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl director Craig Mazin, the series somehow manages to appeal to hardcore game fans — which is good, because you don’t want to get on the wrong side of gamers — while also drawing in viewers who’ve never even heard of the source material, much less played it.
The series is intense and immersive, following the on-the-ground experience of its central characters, sometimes in scene-by-scene replications of the game. There are boosts, though, from the television side. The show combines bigtime HBO production values — there are reports that The Last of Us could be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made — with intimate performances from Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game of Thrones) and newcomer Bella Ramsey (also a Game of Thrones alum).
The Last of Us starts with a brief kicker of a scene set in 1968. It’s one of those ’60s chat shows with the swivelly chairs and the ashtrays on the table, and there’s a Scottish scientist calmly suggesting that “the coming pandemic” will probably involve parasitic fungi — the kind that can burrow into insects’ brains, change their behaviour, and then eat them from the inside out. Of course, fungi could only occupy a human host if they evolved to survive at higher temperatures, he points out. Let’s say, if the planet started warming up.
Flash-forward to 2003 and the sudden, deadly explosion of the mushroom apocalypse. In a 30-minute prologue that’s a marvel of quick, lean storytelling and harrowing emotional effect, we confront the fungus among us through the POV of an ordinary Texas family — Joel (Pascal), who works construction with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) while caring for his teenage daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker).
The family is having a strange day, with the police sirens blaring and the military helicopters overhead. The neighbour’s border collie knows something’s up. Suddenly, they’re struggling to escape the complete chaos in the streets — violent, vicious, fungus-infected hosts hunting anything that moves — before a military blockade closes in.
Flash-forward again to 2023, and Joel is a weary, wary survivor in Boston, now a walled-off quarantine zone. Caught between a ruthless military dictatorship and an underground resistance movement, he’s just trying to survive in this brutal, subsistence-level town — at least until he’s paired with Ellie (Ramsey), an enigmatic orphan girl who might hold the key to humanity’s future, and they begin a hazardous journey west.
Ultimately, this narrative set-up doesn’t just work because it fuses videogame action with the tropes of prestige TV. The Last of Us combines murk and muck with grotesque beauty. It mixes sci-fi speculation with grounded realism. Most importantly, it balances fungal horror with human drama, and bleak moral darkness with glints of hope.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.