Ever since we got to the place where video games could tell stories, people have been trying to take them and adapt them to the Big Screen and live action television. And it is understandable. (Well, mostly. I still could not tell you what the 1993 Super Mario Brothers film is about. And I have watched it numerous times.)
But the track record of success on those projects hasn’t been great. And although it has changed some in recent years, for every Uncharted that we get and see as successful, we have to be reminded of films and projects like Hitman, which couldn’t even be saved by the great Timothy Olyphant. So, it begs the question: can HBO make sure that the incredibly well reviewed video game series The Last of Us is a audience and critical hit?
Well, for starters, it is starting with material that is considered world class by nearly everyone. While I have never played the two games (Last of Us 1 and Last of Us 2), it is impossible not to have heard the reviews of critics who call it simply one of the best narratives to ever be done in a video game. When I saw its compelling tale on some list for Best Picture or screenplay for the Oscars, you realize the impact of the story, that people would hold it in such high regard.
That esteem could be a blessing and a curse. Just because something is overwhelmingly good when compared to other video games, how will it hold up as a narrative in a television series? Especially when you consider that in some ways, the overall big narrative is a little bit played out. A pair of survivors making their way through zombie-like infected hordes was new and had some interesting ideas when the game first came out in 2013.
But remember, the television show The Walking Dead is wrapping up its run, finishing its 11th season this year. We’ve seen zombies and the wide shot of a character(s) walking through the desolate landscape of a post-apocalyptic world more than a few times. Is there enough there to make The Last of Us a compelling television series in 2023?
Again, as someone who has never played the game, the first episode shows promise. In typical HBO prestige format, the first episode clocks in at an hour and 20 minutes, which used to be a solid run time for a movie. And in that short time, we get the set-up and premise of the series.
(Spoilers ahead for the first episode of The Last of Us!)
The show opens with the set-up of a television series from the 1960s where they are talking pandemics, with the wisest of the talking heads talking about the real danger to humanity would be a fungal outbreak that would be impossible in the 1960s but if the world warmed up a few degrees, we could have people possessed by these strange fungal pandemic creating creatures.
We then get to see the story of Joel Miller, who is a construction working war veteran in Austin, Texas, who is making his way through life with his daughter. We get a fair amount of what their life looked like until one evening when the fungal zombies begin to take over, having infected people in the cities and spreading out. When Joel, his brother and daughter try to make a run for it, a soldier tragically kills Joel’s early teen daughter and we basically lose the flashback.
It is now 20 years later and we catch up with Joel in Boston, a quarantined city run by the military. We see get some information on the Fireflies (a separatist, rebellion group fighting the militia that run the city), and learn that Joel and his partner Tess are smugglers. When a battery deal goes bad, Joel and Tess track down the original seller and discover that a shootout has occurred between them and the leader of the Fireflies pays Joel and Tess to escort a young girl Ellie to outside the city, where they are to hand her off to waiting people. And we no from earlier scenes where the Fireflies had Ellie imprisoned initially that she was raised in a military school, placed there by the leaders of the Fireflies. And she has some kind of secret.
At the end of the first episode, when the escaping trio are attacked, Joel seems to have a flashback to when his daughter was killed and beats the soldier that nearly captured them to death, and Ellie is forced to reveal that though she was bitten by a zombie awhile ago, she is not infected, which seems to be her major secret.
For a first episode it is very compelling set-up for what you assume comes next, with the three of them making their way; my assumption is that the hand-off goes badly with the Fireflies and that Ellie will go with them on the trip that Joel had planned all along, to rescue his brother.
So, will it work? I think maybe. Good apocalyptic storytelling can feel slow at first, as the world has to be built out and the audience is given just enough to understand but not so much that they know it all. The set-up of the idea of the fungal zombies was just intriguing enough that we understood what happened when all the chaos broke loose. But there are still gaps for them to explore? What happens from the moment Joel’s daughter is killed to get the world (or at least the US) to the militarized state it is in now?And where do they ultimately need to deliver Ellie? From what I have heard, the video game does much with that story but the show will need to expand out and give us a wider view, while also focusing on what comes.
And it has to be said that the casting of the show seems to give it ideal pieces. The leads are the stellar Pedro Pascal, fresh off The Mandalorian and Bella Ramsey, who crushed it at Lady Mormont in the original Game of Thrones show. As Joel and Ellie, they are going to be the tone setters and while it feels a little played out, especially for Pascal, to be the inheriting father-figure to protect a young one, at least Ramsey’s Ellie isn’t going to have Grogu’s diet.
From what I know, the focus of the game is those two, so I am not sure what to do with Anna Torv’s sensational Tess; is she a new role for the show? An expanded one from the game? Regardless, the series opener and the cast did enough to intrigue me and hopefully they can expand out the world, while also working towards the conclusion that so many people loved in the video games while avoiding the always present network desire to stretch out a successful show well past its original goodness and ending (See: Lost and The Walking Dead.)