“The Last of Us” show exceeds expectations

HBO Max’s pilot premiere doesn’t disappoint

On Sunday, Jan. 15, HBO Max aired the premiere of its long-awaited adaptation of “The Last of Us.” Based on Naughty Dog’s 2013 game of the same name, it follows protagonists Joel and Ellie as they travel across the country in a post-apocalyptic world to deliver a life-saving cure for “the infected.”

The basic premise of the game is nothing groundbreaking — who hasn’t consumed zombie apocalypse media, especially in the 2010s? But the cultivation of the relationship between Joel and Ellie is what makes it so special.

The game opens with Joel’s daughter, Sarah, desperately searching for her father after news of a viral outbreak. Eventually, Sarah is reunited with Joel and his brother, Tommy, and they attempt to flee the city of Austin. They are stopped, however, by a soldier who shoots at Joel and Sarah. Tommy kills the soldier before Joel is harmed, but Sarah is mortally wounded.

The game then skips forward 20 years, where Joel is living with Tess, his partner in crime, in a military-run community. After a series of run-ins with an arms dealer who sold their weapons to the rebellion group, the Fireflies, and Marlene, a member of the Fireflies, Joel finds himself making a deal with Marlene: smuggle Ellie, a 14-year-old girl and apparently precious Firefly cargo, out of the city in exchange for guns. So their journey begins, fighting off the infected, bandits and members of the military.

With a score of 95 on Metacritic, the excellence of the game is practically undisputed, and for good reason. It’s beautiful and the gameplay is incredibly fun, but that’s not my area of expertise. I play games for their storylines, and “The Last of Us” had me hooked immediately. Its careful development of the connection between Joel and Ellie — its theme of creating family in a post-apocalyptic world — is tear-jerking. The depth of the plot and the characters, especially for a game relying heavily on action, is impressive, and I would urge anyone who hasn’t played it yet to do so.

I had my doubts about the adaptation — as most would — but since watching the premiere, all of my worries have dissipated. A.J. Martinez, co-owner of local video game store Propaganda Palace, though, never doubted its greatness.

“I love [the game]. It’s really fun. … I haven’t seen the show yet … [but my friend] was comparing the show to the clips … and they had turned … a fantasy into something more believable and realistic,” Martinez said.

Written and created by Craig Mazin, writer of “Chernobyl,” and Neil Druckmann, original creator of “The Last of Us,” the show stays faithful to the game. The performances of the characters, especially of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), keep up the personas of the original characters easily. Even the setting and tone align exactly with the apocalyptic, “reclaimed-by-nature” vibe of the game.

I’m not a film critic by any means, but they, too, agree. As Alison Herman, writer for “The Ringer,” states, “As performers, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey breathe new life into known quantities. So, too, does their show.”

The only areas where the show strays are in storyline expansion. Take its opening scene: a scientist discusses the threat of a pandemic with a talk show host in the 1960s, where he says that society shouldn’t be worried about viruses, it should be worried about fungi. If the world were to increase its temperature by a few degrees, he states, cordyceps fungus could use humans as its host. This new scene grants a more interesting backstory and creates a closer connection to the threat with the introduction of climate change.

Other, smaller writing discrepancies add similar depth to the universe. My favorite is the enhanced reaction of Joel after a soldier attempts to harm Ellie while checking her for infection. In the game, Joel holds down and calmly shoots the soldier. In the premiere, Joel flashes back to the attack on Sarah and pummels the soldier in a scene much longer than in the game. His anger displays a deeper connection with Ellie and more fervently displays the fatherly role Joel takes on for her.

I greatly enjoyed the premiere, and I’m not the only one. The series received a nearly-perfect 99 percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and pundits in the gaming world support their conclusion. Gilbert Guerra, senior guest advisor at North Star Mall’s GameStop, has high hopes.

“The [premiere] was phenomenal. I loved every bit of [it]. … [I] need to see [the series play] out completely, [but it] was [like watching] the game again but with added material — [a] new perspective,” Guerra said.

As a fan of the game, the premiere of the nine-part show exceeded my expectations tremendously. The game proved to be a critically acclaimed masterpiece, and it looks as though the television series will be no different.

As Peter Travers of ABC News states, “To call ‘The Last of Us,’ the nine-part pow of a series on HBO Max, the best screen adaptation of a video game ever is to damn it with faint praise.”