NOC Review: ‘The Last of Us’ is a Game Changer

If yesterday, you were to tell me the best video game adaptation ever put to any screen was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the truth of the matter would sadly be that you’d likely be accurate. The subgenre has been suffering ever since the first Super Mario Bros movie from 1993 caused Nintendo to embargo any film rights to their games for at least three decades.

And who could blame them with subpar products like Wing Commander, Double Dragon, both Street Fighter films, or even 2021’s Mortal Kombat. Even the Resident Evil films, while successful brainless fun, were in all actually not good movies. But get ready to shout hallelujah! Because Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckman and Craig Maizen (Chernobyl) have teamed up to part the clouds. HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us is here. And I’m here to tell you all, the curse has been broken!

HBO’s The Last of Us is hands down one of the most faithful adaptations of any video game ever interpreted for any screen. But more than that. When they do deviate from the game, they do so in ways that are actually better. A difficult feat to accomplish because it’s challenging to add further depth and humanity to a game that’s known to be one of the most thematically rich, complex stories ever told in the video game format. But to quote Ian Malcom, they did it. The crazy sons of bitches actually did it! This is a review of the full first season.

For the uninitiated, The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the present where parasitic fungi called cordyceps have evolved and began to infect mankind for the past 20 years, completely destroying civilization as we know it. Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a hardened smuggler with a troubled past, is forced to take a job escorting a 14-year old girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) from Boston to Salt Lake City. Along the way, the two must find the means to stay alive while battling the forces of the infected, as well as the most dangerous beings of all: humanity.

If you’re any sort of hardcore or even casual fan of the game, the first thing you’ll notice is that everything you see, from the sets to the staging of the actors during filming, will feel incredibly familiar. And that’s a good thing, because there’s no sense in doing anything stupid to screw up something that’s quite perfect. In fact, if nothing else, it evokes a sense of awe; awe from the meticulous attempts to recreate scenes and settings from the game, breathing those famous locales to glorious live action. There are moments where Joel and Ellie are walking through iconic locations like the streets and tunnels of Kansas City, the University of Eastern Colorado, or the Silver Lake steakhouse, which will trigger any and all memories of you completing various challenges/missions within the game. It’s so very impressive, and something that sells well for the hardcores.

But as anyone who’s played the two games knows, this series is about more than just the visuals. It’s the characters that make all the difference. They’re what separates this game franchise from the Resident Evils or Silent Hills of the gaming world. And this is what Craig and of course Druckman understand so fully, and what they bring to the series. And it translates beautifully courtesy of Emmy-worthy performances from Pascal and Ramsey, who is a glorious revelation as Ellie.

Nailing the characters of Joel and Ellie and their relationships is critical to the success of this adaptation, and that’s exactly what Pascal and Ramsey do. Pascal does a lot without saying too much. But everything Joel is thinking and feeling is written right there on his face and in his eyes. The walls the character builds up from the tragedies he’s experienced as well as how those walls begin to crumble as soon as Ellie enters his life are elements Pascal truly understands and is able to convey in a soulful manner through his tone and expressions.

His work in this series is comparable to Heath Ledger’s Oscar nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. While Ramsey gives a stellar funny, complex, beautiful performance as Ellie. Through the performance, she perfectly understands how to embody the innocence of a 14-year old girl raised in a literal walled-off quarantine zone seeing the world for the first time, and how that innocence slowly gets lost as she grows up and experiences the worst humanity and the world have to offer. Ramsey captures Ellie’s toughness, vulnerability, and naïvity, but never loses sight of the eternal hopefulness of a character that endures even after seeing the worst events take place. And this is important because it is the defining trait of the character and the very reason why she changes Joel’s life.

Ramsey and Pascal work so beautifully together, giving complementary performances that directly map to the complementary nature of Joel and Ellie’s relationship in the story. And much like the game, their chemistry is what gets us to fall in love with them as a duo, and allows us to invest in the journey these two take together. It raises the stakes so much given the sheer levels of verisimilitude and authenticity in this relationship based on their performances, that even if you have seen this story play out before, you’re still on the edge of your seat in suspense anytime you witness any internal or external dangers that might threaten its safety or the safety of its characters.

But the beautiful performances don’t end at Pascal and Ramsey. We are treated to amazing moments with an ensemble of guest stars including Nico Parker, Gabriel Luna, Merle Dandrige, Anna Torv, Storm Reid, Lamar Johnson, Keivonn Woodard, and especially Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett. For those who have played the games, and even the extended DLCs like The Last of Us: Left Behind, many of the stories you’ll see featured in various episodes with these guest stars won’t be too surprising, but every character is portrayed very well by their respective actors, from Reid’s portrayal of Ellie’s best friend Riley, to Johnson and Woodard’s harrowing performances as Henry and Sam.

But the deviations made to these characters and their stories shine so brightly in this series, making the stories even better. For instance, Sam, in this case, is portrayed by Woodard, who is a young deaf actor. So making the character younger and also deaf makes Henry and his survival even more inspiring, creates an extra level of innocence to Sam, and also makes every emotional connection we have to these characters more effective and impactful when their stories play out.

However, the biggest of these deviations is also the greatest, which is the story of Offerman’s and Bartlett’s Bill and Frank. While the game told the simple story of a grizzled, bitter, paranoid Bill begrudgingly helping Joel and Ellie get a car, and offered a short scene involving Frank, we get a richer, fuller, better story between the two characters in this series adaptation. Dedicating a full episode to their relationship and playing it out in a way that makes it one of the most beautiful stories anyone could possibly set in the ugly and treacherous world the story is set in was an inspired choice.

Druckman and Maizen turned a quest for a truck and the discovery of a note into something so much more profound and meaningful, which absolutely displays the genius behind them as showrunners and emphasizes why this is an absolute game changer for the potential of powerful storytelling in video game adaptations. And none of this would be possible without the wonderful, tender performances of Offerman and Bartlett. These are performances for richer versions of these characters that also echo the central relationship of Joel and Ellie, with Offerman being an echo of Pascal’s reserved, quite, cynical performance, and Bartlett echoing Ramsey’s hopeful, spirited performance. With all of this serving as an example of how hope and love can still persist in the most difficult and dark of times. Absolutely beautiful.

The show also ends up expanding upon some of the games own mythological elements, with episodes that showcase the start of the cordycep outbreak, and even some of the elements of Ellie’s backstory. The new scenes artfully give us fans a lot more information regarding how the situation started, contributing to and enhancing the narrative behind the game and our characters. We get a great scene with Anna, Ellie’s mother, which includes some familiar elements for game fans, that could possibly be used to set up elements of the next chapter in this story. And we also get some never before seen moments regarding doctors and scientists who researched cordyceps, providing general audiences a better understanding of what’s going on and why, which, again, enhances what we know about the game while never alienating newcomers, and providing a sense of foreboding for the series as a whole.

From a technical standpoint, I’ve already spoken about how perfectly recreated every set and location has been developed. So incredible praise needs to be showered on both the VFX and production design teams. The show also brings back game composer Gustavo Santaolalla to bring forth his haunting, guitar driven, Spaghetti Western inspired themes to add emotion to the growing relationship of Ellie and Joel and the tension to the increasing levels of danger around them. And the make up and creature effects on the Clickers (visually impaired infected that move and hunt based on echolocation) and the Runners (fast running infected) and Bloaters (infected goliaths) is spectacular and flat out scary, that it will grab the attention of even the most apathetic viewer disillusioned by the often played out zombie genre. All of this has come together to make a show that has done a massively wonderful job bringing Naughty Dog’s gorgeous graphics to life with painstaking realism.

If there are any shortcomings at all with the series, it’s probably that we don’t get as many physical challenges with the game’s inventive creatures as one would hope. The action is usually contained to human conflicts, which is wonderful because humanity is the true focus of this franchise. But it would have been fun to get way more time with Joel and Ellie fending off Clickers and Bloaters. One could see why they made this decision for the series given budgetary constraints and the absolutely justified decision to keep the focus on character and relationship development, and theme. But I suppose it couldn’t have hurt to include a bit more action in the show.

That being said, as a fan, I couldn’t be happier and more thrilled at how the product turned out. Even with less monsters, the show still manages to captivate and thrill, and I predict will be just as successful and gripping for non-fans as it has been for hardcore fans like myself. And all of that boils down to one wonderful thing that makes the show absolutely perfect: the treatment and execution of these characters. It retains a faithful spirit, and beautifully hits the bullseye of how these characters should be portrayed from a performance level and a writing standpoint. Maizen, Druckman, Ramsey, and Pascal, as well as the full ensemble get us to fall in love with these characters, and the show is so goddamn good and so much more thrilling because of it.

Is this show HBO’s next Game of Thrones? No. Why? Because it’s something a lot more special and way more extraordinary.

Overall Score: A+

The Last of Us debuts Sunday, January 15 on HBO.