THE LAST OF US Review: Pedro Pascal And Bella Ramsey Shine In Powerful Survival Horror Adaptation

The Last of Us is set to premiere on January 15, and now that the review embargo has lifted, you can find out what we made of HBO's small-screen adaptation...

Reviews Opinion

Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is considered by many to be among the best video games ever made, so there was understandably a lot of excitement - not to mention a certain amount of trepidation - when it was announced that HBO would be adapting the survival horror game for the small screen.

While some video game films/shows have found success and a level of critical acclaim (the recent Sonic the Hedgehog movies, for example), by and large, they don't tend to be very good. 

The mere mention of HBO does tend to inspire confidence that a certain standard of quality will be adhered to, and the news that Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and the game's creator Neil Druckmann were going to be involved didn't hurt. Still, not everyone was on board with the casting decisions, and there was some concern that the show might veer too far away from the game's narrative.

Fortunately - and this is coming from someone who views both games as masterpieces - fans needn't have worried, because HBO has delivered a bleakly brilliant take on the story, which might well come to be viewed as the best video game adaptation of all time.

Why The Last of Us HBO Series Having New Scenes and Dialogue Makes Sense

For the uninitiated, The Last of Us is set in a future that's been decimated by a viral infection that turns people into mindless, ravenous killers, and focuses on the relationship between a hardened survivor of the "zombie" apocalypse (Pedro Pascal), and a teenage girl (Bella Ramsey) he's been tasked with keeping safe. The ruthless Joel is far from your typical "good guy," and only agrees to take Ellie under his protection with the promise of a healthy payday at the end of their journey. Ellie is no happier with her new travelling companion, but as the road grows more and more perilous and the pair are forced to rely on each other to survive, a bond begins to form.

The grizzled protector growing to care for their younger charge is hardly an original premise, but the game still managed to infuse its narrative with a sense of unpredictability, and the show follows suit. If you've played through the first game, you will have a pretty good idea of how the major story beats are going to go, but there are a few surprises in store.

We won't go into too much detail for fear of spoiling something, but certain aspects of the tale are expanded upon, and there is one significant change involving a supporting character and which point they're introduced in the timeline (we're trying to be as vague as possible here). This may end up being divisive, but the episode in question is arguably the most powerful, compelling instalment of the season. The events of the "Left Behind" expansion are also covered, as Ellie's relationship with her friend Riley is explored in an emotional flashback.

The game is notoriously bleak, and the show matches its grim intensity - and then some. The Last of Us is not always an easy watch, and there are some genuinely unsettling moments as Joel and Ellie face increasingly dangerous obstacles on their journey. There are some nail-bitingly tense encounters with runners, clickers and bloaters (the various stages of infected), but, as is so often the case with these post-apocalyptic yarns, it's the humans that emerge as the real monsters.

Pascal is used to playing a jaded mercenary who bonds with a young travelling companion, but Joel is a very different beast to The Mandalorian. Though his violent past is really only alluded to, he all-but admits to slaughtering innocent people in order to survive. It's not always easy to root for this type of character, but the Game of Thrones alum is terrific as a shell of a man whose life has been marred by tragedy, slowly beginning to rediscover his humanity. 

There was some backlash when Ramsey was cast as Ellie, primarily because she doesn't resemble the video game version of the character (Pascal doesn't really look like Joel, either, but that didn't seem to bother people as much). It's understandable that gamers would have their own ideas about how these characters should be portrayed, but Ramsey is certain to alleviate any concerns and silence her doubters with her engaging, soulful, and often very funny turn.

As The Last of Us progresses towards its conclusion (it is left open for a second season, of course), some may become a little weary of the relentless brutality, but, like the game, this is ultimately a story about a glimmer of hope emerging from the darkness, and the show is at its best when focusing on its flawed characters searching for something - or someone - to cling on to as the world goes to hell around them. 

The Last of Us is set to premiere on HBO on January 15 in the US, and a day later on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK and Ireland.

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