HBO’s video-game adaptation doesn’t reinvent the apocalypse genre. But it injects an undead story with new life.
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By James Poniewozik
You would be forgiven for suffering, at this point, from pandemic fatigue. I’m referring here not to Covid-19 but to the many plagues that have kicked off TV apocalypses in recent years. From “Station Eleven” to “12 Monkeys,” “The Walking Dead” to “The Stand,” “Y: The Last Man” to “The Last Man on Earth,” this is the way the world ends, and ends, and ends.
HBO’s high-gloss zombie thriller “The Last of Us,” beginning on Sunday, offers a biological twist on its cataclysm. An ophiocordyceps fungus, akin to the real-life one that ghoulishly takes over the bodies of ants, mutates to infest humans, turning civilization into a global mushroom farm.
In the taxonomy of horror, its undead are “fast zombies,” as opposed to the shambling hordes in old-time creature features. So the mayhem comes quickly in this series. The emotional connection moves more slow-and-steady, but it eventually gets there.
The series kicks off in Standard Apocalypse-Onset Mode. Joel (Pedro Pascal), a construction contractor in Texas, starts his birthday in 2003 eating breakfast with his family and ends it amid the chaos of civilization’s collapse. The intense but bloated 81-minute pilot runs up a high body count, making clear that there is minimal plot armor to go around here.
Twenty years later, in 2023, we find Joel in the military-occupied ruins of Boston, a grim, grizzled survivor. Battling fungi does not make one a fun guy. With his black-marketeering partner, Tess (Anna Torv), he lands a job escorting Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old who is immune to zombie bites, on a risky journey that could lead to a cure.
Inside the Dystopian World of The Last of Us
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.
Ellie may or may not be the savior of humanity, but she certainly rescues “The Last of Us” from apocalyptic mope. In “Game of Thrones” (in which Pascal also did time), Ramsey was memorable as Lady Lyanna Mormont, the fearsome child leader of a northern fief. Here she’s all foulmouthed verve, her adolescent insolence turbocharged by the liberation of living after the end of the world. Her fighting spirit is, well, infectious.
“The Last of Us” is based on the Naughty Dog video game of the same name, from which it takes its nine-episode first-season arc and many of its strongest scenes and best lines. (Neil Druckmann, a creator of the game, co-writes the series with Craig Mazin of “Chernobyl.”)
It really finds its voice, though, when it expands on the source material. The third episode, featuring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, builds out a relationship alluded to only briefly in the game. The episode advances the plot only marginally, but it throws the show’s range wide open. This is an apocalypse story in which you will be allowed to feel and even laugh, a game adaptation able to grant dimensionality to its nonplayer characters.
But the story must live or (un)die on the connection between Joel and Ellie. You may know Pascal from “The Mandalorian,” in which his helmeted bounty hunter shepherds a cuddly alien through the Star Wars galaxy’s sleazier precincts. “The Last of Us” posits: What if Baby Yoda could swear? A prickly buddy comedy unfolds between Joel and his unruly charge, and Pascal’s laconic gunslinger appeal translates well to this bleaker universe.
What matters most about zombie stories is what they say about the living. In TV’s most popular example, “The Walking Dead,” it was nothing much good. Over its long run, the show fell into a pessimism bordering on misanthropy, committed to the ideas that beasts and sadists would thrive in the end times, that trust is a sucker’s bet and that only your own small clan can be counted on — if even them.
“The Last of Us” is dark, don’t get me wrong. But it has if not optimism, exactly, then a generosity toward its survivors. Its hardscrabble apocalypse has antagonists, but they are not generally monsters. (Except for the actual monsters.) They’re terrified kid soldiers, starving people who have suffered grievous losses, desperate leaders cracking under unasked-for responsibility.
The series suffers most from threadbare world building. The surface details are fine: HBO’s budget bought some magnificent ruins, accented with the baroque tendril patterns of spent cordyceps and a nightmare menagerie of zombies, from twitching, hissing “clickers” to “bloaters,” fungal giants who resemble the offspring of the Hulk and a horned toad.
But the bigger forces behind Joel and Ellie’s quest are disappointingly generic: The Fireflies, a standard-issue ragtag resistance group, square off against the faceless military regime of the fictional government agency called the Federal Disaster Response Agency, or FEDRA. (Perhaps the greatest leap in “The Last of Us” is imagining that a George W. Bush-era emergency-management bureaucracy was capable of creating a functional police state.)
The story is strongest when it zooms in on its central duo, who evolve into allies and something like family. Joel’s paternal fondness for Ellie, it becomes clear, scares him more than any undead beastie.
That fear is the core of “The Last of Us.” It’s an extended horror story of single parenting. Joel’s struggle is a heightened version of the everyday experience of how being responsible for a vulnerable life makes you vulnerable yourself, how it can make you do unforgivable things for them — or to them — in the name of protection.
Through Joel, we feel the heartbreak of this world. Through Ellie, we see its wonder. When they come across the wreckage of a jetliner, she asks if he ever flew in one, and he recalls what an uncomfortable ordeal air travel was. “Dude,” she says, “you got to go up in the sky.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that a drama based on a video game can have heart. A great, smart game depends on personal connection. In fact, so can a great, dumb one, as Ellie finds when she delightedly comes across a Mortal Kombat arcade machine, a relic of an age when battling to the death was casual entertainment.
The game comes up more than once in “The Last of Us,” a reminder of the undying, “FINISH HIM!” appeal of stylized violence, which this series is well aware of. If it’s zombie spatter you want, “The Last of Us” has it by the bucketful.
If, on the other hand, you’re hoping that it will upend the plague-apocalypse genre as “The Sopranos” did the mob drama or “The Wire” did the cop show — well, not quite. But with its smidgen of hope and its rejection of nihilism, “The Last of Us” has a few key mutations that make it a variant of interest.
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