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10th Jan 2023

REVIEW: The Last Of Us is a savage, beautiful, terrifying masterpiece

Rory Cashin

One of the most anticipated new shows of all time, The Last Of Us arrives this week

When it comes to The Last Of Us, there are two types of people in the world:

(1) those who have played the game and are approaching this adaptation with serious trepidation, not only because of the infamous curse that a good movie or show can be made from a video game, but because this particular video game is widely regarded to be one of the very best ever made.

(2) those who have never played the game, or maybe even never heard of it, and are looking at this very expensive, zombie-filled post-apocalyptic thriller – reports suggest episodes ran as high as $15 million each – wondering what could this show do that wasn’t already achieved in nearly 200 episodes of The Walking Dead.

Thankfully, both groups of viewers can not only put their minds at ease, but should fully prepare themselves for what is one of the best first seasons of TV to arrive in the last decade, because The Last Of Us is a savage, beautiful, terrifying, heartbreaking masterpiece.

Set two decades after a mutant fungal outbreak completely decimates human civilisation, which also turned anyone infected into a cannibalistic creature, we are introduced to Joel (Pedro Pascal), a violent smuggler who has been tasked with getting teenage girl Ellie (Bella Ramsey) safely to a medical centre on the other side of the country. It turns out that Ellie has been bitten by one of the creatures, but she has remained immune to the infection, so the key to creating a cure may be found in her blood.

So they set off across a ruined America, visiting decimated areas with a size and scope not portrayed outside of a humongously budget Hollywood blockbuster, a landscape filled with both the very frightening mutated cannibals, and remnants of humanity that reveal the very best and the very worst our species is capable of.

Writers Craig Mazin (who was behind HBO’s fantastic Chernobyl series) and Neil Druckmann (creator of the video game) have remained largely entirely faithful to the story’s origins, but have adjusted and expanded in ways that both improve and deepen the world, especially in terms of giving more time to the individuals that Joel and Ellie cross paths with on their journey.

Every character is immaculately cast and brilliantly portrayed, from Joel’s brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), Joel’s smuggling partner Tess (Anna Torv), survivalists Frank (Murray Bartlett) and Bill (Nick Offerman), as well as new additions such as revolutionary leader Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and Ellie’s mother Anna (Ashley Johnson). Each of them add such dimensions to this story, shading in backgrounds that are incredibly well-thought-out, without ever verging towards indulgent.

Indeed, the first episode of the series is a whopping 85-minutes long, with many of the following episodes landing over an hour, but it is thoroughly needed and deserved. The sense of scale on display here is often jaw-dropping, to the point where you will almost wish you could watch every episode play out on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.

Matching the show’s magnitude is its perfect awareness of tone, with each episode capable of dizzying levels of action, tension and horror, as well as moments of true, thorough heartbreak – there is one episode in particular that had this viewer crying non-stop pretty much for the entire hour. The tagline for the series is “When you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light”, and The Last Of Us feels particularly poignant for our world considering the last few years’ events: even when things are at their worst, there will always be something – or more likely, someone – who can save you from that darkness.

If that all sounds a bit grim and dour… well, yes, at times, it is very much that. There are some distressing scenes that hammer home the brutalities of this existence, but also aren’t a million miles away from some of the stories we’ve all heard took place through our own recent pandemic. But, very importantly, The Last Of Us knows exactly when to lighten the mood so it isn’t nine episodes of pure misery porn, which is where Joel and Ellie come in.

Pascal and Ramsey are both so incredibly good in their roles, it almost belies belief. Joel and Ellie have both been emotionally destroyed in their own ways, but Pascal and Ramsey portray their individual determination so effectively, that they both deserve every possible award that might go their way. The world of The Last Of Us is terrible and terrifying, but thanks to these two, it is a world you’ll actually want to stay in.

The first episode of The Last Of Us will be available to watch on Sky Atlantic and with streaming service NOW Entertainment Membership from Monday, 16 January, with new episodes arriving weekly.

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