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Dan Webster reviews "The Last Of Us"


Over the last three decades, dozens of film adaptations—rendered in features, shorts and miniseries—have been developed from videogames. In many cases, the results say more about the increasing quality of the games than they do about the ability of the film industry to create original content.

Then again, considering how many of today’s movies involve sequels, remakes or merely one more in the long list of superhero franchises, the less said about the mainstream film industry and originality the better.

In rare cases, though, skilled filmmakers are able to blend the two formats into something that feels both original and dramatically satisfying. And a good example of that melding is the HBO series The Last of Us.

The game version of The Last of Us was released in 2013 by the American videogame developer Naughty Dog and was an immediate hit. Some 1.3 million units were sold in its first week of release, a number that rose to 17 million over the next five years. And critics were impressed as well, with the review site Metacritic awarding the game 95 out of a possible 100 Metascore.

The film version took a typically circuitous production route. First proposed as a feature film, with the game’s co-creator Neil Druckmann set as the screenwriter, the project went basically nowhere until Craig Mazin entered the scene. A fan of the videogame, Mazin—the creator and writer of the HBO series Chernobyl—insisted that Druckmann’s project be shaped as a series.

What resulted from their partnership was a nine-episode series, co-written mostly by Mazin—but also Druckmann—with episodes directed either by both or four other filmmakers. The storyline focuses on the game’s two protagonists, Joel (played by Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian) and Ellie (played by Game of Thrones actress Bella Ramsey).

The overall concept, which in most respects mirrors the videogame, involves Joel being enlisted as Ellie’s shepherd. For reasons that eventually are revealed, Ellie is immune to the strain of virulent fungi that has caused a deadly and growing world-wide infestation—not unlike the causes at the heart of your typical zombie movie. Because Ellie is seen by a rebel group known as the Fireflies as the means of developing a cure for the infestation, Joel ends up being convinced to take her West where the two will rendezvous with a Firefly Medical facility.

Of course, Joel has another quest, too, which is to discover what happened to his brother Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna) who disappeared somewhere in Wyoming (the majestic outdoor scenes were shot in Alberta, Canada).

I need to reveal here that I’ve never played the videogame, though I have watched some YouTube gameplay footage, which provides a feel for how well the series imitates the source material, which—trigger warning—is graphically violent throughout. And while they changed some aspects of the storyline, it’s clear that Mazin and Druckmann have created a series that boasts something special, something that balances your typical dystopian story with a feel for the various definitions of loyalty and of love.

One of the most touching episodes, the third in the series titled “Long, Long Time” follows the couple Bill (played by Nick Offerman) and Frank (played by Murray Bartlett). Bill is a survivalist who, having successfully hidden from FEDRA—the dreaded Federal Disaster Response Agency—lives alone until another survivor, Frank, chances along. They, eventually, are able to provide Joel and Ellie the means to continue their western sojourn.

There’s motherly love, too, as portrayed in Episode 9, titled “Look for the Light,” when Ellie’s mother Anna (played by Ashley Johnson) makes a maternal sacrifice. And, then, there’s the brotherly love of Joel and Tommy.

But the most glaring example of love is the father-daughter relationship that grows between Joel and Ellie, a pairing that begins rough but develops as the series progresses, their bond strengthened by mutual needs and life histories.

It’s a pairing that poses the ultimate question: What would you be willing to sacrifice for the one you love? For Joel, the answer comes easily, and for reasons as believable and touching as anything Hollywood has created in ages.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for