Since the Super Mario Bros. movie released in 1993, it is fair to say that video games have struggled to transfer to other formats. Despite many engrossing tales on the playable medium, the attempt to recreate the magic in movies has failed largely because of the time limitations and the focus on copying action rather than story. But with The Last of Us taking the series route, the curse may have been broken. For when all hope was lost, they looked to a game that tells the greatest gaming story. And the result demonstrates how powerful a tv show based on a video game can be.
The Last of Us, a survival horror title with action and adventure sprinkled in, was released on the PlayStation 3 in 2013. It became the gold standard for narrative-based gameplay and spawned the most highly anticipated sequel of all time. There was no doubt that a movie or tv show would be made based on its success at some stage, but a movie was never going to cut it – just look at Uncharted or anything The Rock has starred in. When it was announced that HBO would take a punt, credibility arrived. Add in a lead who has appeared in two of the biggest franchises ever – Game of Thrones and Star Wars – and you’ve got yourself a green light alongside a bucketload of cash. But there are no guarantees in this business, right?
While this is a review of the opening episode, said episode goes for nearly an hour and a half. From the first frame, we know this isn’t going to be a horror attempt with cheap scares or flashy action. The action is gritty, the audio (or, at times, the lack thereof) is haunting and the actors evoke the same feelings their gaming counterparts did back in 2013. Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey as the iconic Joel and Ellie are the focal points, and while they don’t spend too much time together in episode 1, they bounce off one another very well to demonstrate the potential for growth (Ellie’s smartass-ery is implemented in full force, likewise Joel’s gruffness). The rest of the series is dependent on their chemistry, but signs are strong and immersive. The setting is bleak and depressing, the violence is gory, and the clickers (zombie-like infected) are used few and far between to ensure viewers soil themselves whenever they’re chasing a hero. All you need to hear is a soft click down a hall to get the blood pumping.
Knowing the full story does not reduce the sadness in a key scene within the opening thirty minutes, nor does it reduce the adrenaline that kicks in during the chase. Those who have played the game and those who haven’t will still connect with the characters and story, simply because it is so well written and performed. Just seeing the Fireflies symbol spray painted on a wall is an example of subtle, foreshadowing imagery that only needs to be in the background to generate the effect.
So, from the perspective of someone who has played and loved the game for a decade, is it worth your time? Yes. Does it transfer the magic to the medium? Yes. Are there any lingering doubts? Hard to say, as there are some scenes in the game that will be incredibly challenging to portray. But from episode 1 alone, everything was executed with excellence. Having the original creator on board is a key reason for this, alongside the creator of Chernobyl (which has its stylistic footprints all over episode 1).
While some scenes are presented shot-for-shot, others add new layers to the characters and their stories. Tess is an example of this, becoming a scene stealer and demonstrating more rawness in her portrayal than the game. Marlene is another. Having some of the original voice actors as the actual actors works a treat, likewise the composer for music and locations that look identical. Seeing Joel shrouded in darkness, you’d think it was a screenshot directly from the game.
Episode 1 of The Last of Us is, so far, the best release of 2023 across any medium. We may only be 16 days into the year, but after watching those 90 minutes it may be difficult for this to change when we write our year in review. But hey, we haven’t seen episode 2 yet, right?
The Last of Us is available to stream now on BINGE, new episodes drop every Monday.
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