Review: “The Last of Us” is beautiful – but something is missing

Ina vignette, which opens the second installment of HBO’s post-apocalyptic epic The last of us, a professor of mycology, is having lunch at a restaurant in Jakarta when two military men kidnap her mid-bite. Transported to a government lab, she inspects the corpse of a factory worker, whose body is now colonized by a writhing, bloodthirsty fungus. When she learns that the source of the human bite that caused the dead woman’s infection remains unknown, the scientist begins to tremble; the teacup in her hand rattles against the saucer. An official asks them to help them make a medicine or a vaccine. But she knows that a cure would be impossible. Saving humanity, says the genteel academic, requires mass murder: “Bomb this city and everyone in it.”

It’s one of many chilling moments in a series that premieres on January 15 and whose prevailing moods are tense, sad and unnerving. And while almost all the action is in there The last of us Set halfway across the world from Indonesia, in the United States, the professor’s deadly recipe sets the tone for a story whose characters are constantly forced to choose between protecting themselves and loved ones or making existential sacrifices for the sake of it Probably want to bring a plague. devastated society. Based on the acclaimed video game franchise and created by the game’s mastermind, Neil Druckmann, and Chernobyl Creator Craig Mazin, the show alternates between beautiful and harrowing, brutal and warm. From the performances to the storytelling to the aesthetic elements, it’s an exquisitely made adaptation. But it also asks viewers to take in a whole lot of human misery without saying much, something we haven’t heard on similar shows before.

The plot is a pastiche of well-known post-apocalyptic survival narratives, though it doesn’t overly resemble any particular predecessor. In the alternate reality of the 2003 series, climate change catalyzes a mutation in the horrific Cordyceps fungus, allowing it to take over the human body and essentially turn its victims into deadly zombies. Within a week of its discovery in Indonesia, the brain-colonizing affliction is spreading across the world, causing chaos, violence, the collapse of society, and the demise of the vast majority of humanity. You know the drill: in one minute, the frequency of ambulance sirens is a cause for mild concern; in the next, people fight mushroom monsters that used to be their neighbors.

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Pedro Pascal a The last of us

Liane Hentscher—HBO

Although we meet one of two protagonists, a contractor and single father named Joel (Pedro Pascal) just before the plague decimates his home state of Texas, most of the show is set two decades later. Joel has made his way to Boston, where he and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) work as smugglers – a dangerous job in a devastated, walled city controlled by a fascist government, FEDRA, which itself owns the petty criminals publicly condemned to execution. Naturally apolitical survivors, the pair prepare for a perilous journey to Wyoming in search of Joel’s idealistic brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), when they become embroiled in the machinations of a righteous, militant rebel faction, the Fireflies. The group’s leader, Marlene (Merle Dandridge), makes a deal with them to escort a young woman who may hold the key to mankind’s future.

Fourteen year old Ellie (game of Thrones Breakout Bella Ramsey is a headstrong, independent orphan with a remarkable secret: she’s the only person, as far as anyone can tell, to have been bitten by a zombie without contracting the disease. If she can make it to a western lab where Firefly scientists are conducting vital research, she might be able to help create the cure that seemed impossible 20 years ago. But the journey will not be easy; Networks of corpse-powered mushrooms still await fresh blood, and the humans who’ve survived the past few decades are quite a bunch of cutthroats. Complicating things even further is Ellie’s thorny relationship with Joel, who has hardened and brusquely since losing a daughter her age in 2003.

Traveling west together, following a trajectory that is said to match the game’s fairly closely, Druckmann and Mazin make space to tell the stories of the people our heroes meet. There’s an idyllic condominium and a Christian cult on the brink of starvation. The closer these digressions get to individual characters, the less general they seem. In Kansas City, a grieving community leader (Melanie Lynskey) embarks on a scorched earth search to destroy a man (Lamar Johnson) who betrayed her to save his own son (Keivonn Woodard), who has leukemia. A bittersweet vignette spanning most of the season’s best episodes sees Nick Offerman as a misanthropic survivalist who builds a relatively luxurious fortress around himself and then accidentally booby-traps the perfect person (Murray Bartlett) to take with him share.

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Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal present The last of us

Liane Hentscher—HBO

Intelligently cast and impressively written, these side stories effectively evoke an emotional response. (Screamers, be warned.) Even the surrogate parent-child bond that inevitably develops between Joel and Ellie goes beyond cliché thanks to the performances. Stripped of his Mandalorian mask, Pascal softens Joel’s stoicism with hints of tenderness; You can see his protective father muscle memory kick in, though he insists he only sees Ellie as cargo. Ramsey’s sensitive portrayal of her orphaned character, who is by turns brave, goofy, heartbreakingly naive and necessarily mature beyond her years, may be the series’ greatest asset.

Equally impressive is the visual world Druckmann and Mazin import from the game. Created in agreement with conceptual artists in last of us‘ developer, Naughty Dog — and funded with a massive budget that reportedly exceeded $100 million for its eight-part debut season — the series’ settings are vastly different, but share a distinctive patina of post-apocalyptic decay. Each infected body has its own zany, human-fungus hybrid traits, and the patterns the fungus makes as it crawls across walls and floors and furniture are both beguiling and nauseating. Now that so much of what we see on the big and small screens seems vague unreal aspect conveyed through the excessive use of computerized effects, it’s a special treat to watch a video game adaptation that’s truly cinematic, immersing us in the majesty of snow-capped mountains one moment and the sordid details of an abandoned mall the next.

The last of us is so skillfully, meticulously, and lovingly constructed—to call it television’s best video game adaptation would be faint praise—that it was tempting to ignore the question that plagued me throughout each episode: What’s the point? It’s not that the characters’ motivations are muddled, or that the central dilemma of self and society isn’t explored deeply enough. But this moral conflict that resonated with so many fans of the game isn’t exactly new to this medium. There has been so much post-apocalyptic drama in recent years: the Walking Dead Franchise, sweet tooth, The rain, snowpiercer, The 100th, Y: The last man. Almost all touch on similar topics. The very best examples, like HBO’s The rest and HBO Max’s station eleven, don’t just ask if the end of a person’s survival justifies the means; They conjure unique visions of spirituality, art and love influenced by the ordeal of life to the end of the world. Each can be heartbreaking at times, but both leave viewers with profound ideas of what it means to be a human being in difficult times.

I don’t know that The last of us offers similar insights. Having never played the game, I can only imagine that the meaning gap in its otherwise robust story is something that players fill with their own simulated, but in a sense still first-hand, experience of impersonating Joel and Ellie . A game that challenges your ethics is a game that teaches you about yourself. In the form of beautifully rendered, often devastating television, the effect is less revealing and more masochistic. What’s the use of inflicting so much vicarious suffering on yourself at a time when everyday life offers much of reality, if you don’t come out wiser on the other side?

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