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Game On: ‘The Last of Us’ makes a stunning debut on the screen

Nearly 10 years after the inception of the critically acclaimed video game franchise, “The Last of Us” premiered on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday. The show stars Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie.  (HBO)
Nearly 10 years after the inception of the critically acclaimed video game franchise, “The Last of Us” premiered on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday. The show stars Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie. (HBO)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

“The Last of Us” has seen a massive surge in interest following the release of the pilot episode of its TV series adaptation on HBO and HBO Max – Google Trends data shows a 376% increase in searches since Sunday. Deservedly so – the game franchise is held in high regard for its intense storyline and fascinating post-apocalyptic setting and thus far, the new show follows closely in its footsteps.

Without getting into spoiler territory, the story takes place in a modern-day U.S. completely overrun by a fungal virus that causes hosts to mutate and become rabid. The real-world Cordyceps fungus does this to insects, so “The Last of Us” poses the question: what if it evolved to infect humans?

The result is a ravaged, desolate wasteland whose only semblance of civilization is totalitarian military states, raiders and nomads. Nearly every remaining human is motivated by an understandable sense of desperation. The story revolves around the main characters – Joel, played by Pedro Pascal and Ellie, portrayed by Bella Ramsey – discovering a potential cure to the virus and attempting to deliver it to a lab halfway across the country.

Thus far, “The Last of Us” is very true to its source material – the 2013 video game by the same name. As of writing, it holds a 99% critic score and a 96% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s a fantastic rating by any metric, but compared to other video game adaptations, it’s unprecedented.

On one hand, I could play devil’s advocate and say that the adaptation isn’t all that impressive – the original game was extremely cinematic with regards to storytelling and even portions of its gameplay. In many ways, it already felt like a long interactive movie.

But then I remember the Halo adaptation that premiered on Paramount+ in March – making bizarre and questionable changes to the source material for no good reason, butchering the personalities of beloved characters and committing the cardinal sin of Master Chief removing his helmet. With 16 games and 31 novels, the franchise is hardly without content, but the writers elected to ignore almost all of it.

By contrast, “The Last of Us” is clearly a labor of love. It’s true to the source material – there are added details and story elements, but so far none of them contradict or detract from the original script. The opening scene of the pilot portrays an epidemiologist explaining the potential threat of an evolved Cordyceps fungus, foreshadowing the disaster to unfold – it’s engrossing and almost scientifically sound.

Video games will always be my preferred medium of entertainment, but in this instance, I feel the TV adaptation of “The Last of Us” is better-paced than the game. The story kicks off with a tearjerker moment, but when I played the game almost a decade ago, it didn’t land for me. I wasn’t invested enough in the characters for it to affect me. This time, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, it landed thanks to great pacing and solid acting.

The “Last of Us” stands as proof that TV and film executives may be wise to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and just give audiences what they want to see. We don’t want an edgy, Rick & Morty-style Scooby Doo a la “Velma,” we don’t want a completely reinvented Halo – just give us more of what our favorite franchises are already renowned for.

In the case of “The Last of Us,” that’s the horrifying realities of human tribalism, poignant moments of character development, a halfway believable zombie virus and loads and loads of suspenseful moments.

The season is set to have nine episodes in total, releasing once a week every Sunday until the final episode airs on March 12. Thus far, the writing, performances, set pieces and special effects have all been phenomenal. It’s nice to see such a faithful video game adaptation, even if it’s part of a franchise I’ve often been critical of. We’re just one episode in, and I’m already fully invested.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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