Review by C.J. Bunce
The Last of Us, two episodes in, is the latest re-hash of the fantasy horror gore that already made its rounds via the likes of The Strain and The Walking Dead and its spin-offs. Another depressing and joyless depiction of the future, the series is also the latest based on a video game. So expect lots of third-person shooter scenes, inserted for no actual story purpose. It’s also on HBO so expect its trademark violence, nudity, and profanity that goes beyond the needs of the story. Inexplicably it has one of the biggest advance marketing campaigns, with networks it doesn’t even air on, like the Syfy channel, publicizing it non-stop this past week. But not even Pedro Pascal can save it. With so much better content available, this is one to skip.
The first episode opens with a mock-up of a 1960s television program talking about how pandemics aren’t the real concern for the world’s future, but fungus is. The attempt is to establish the series as serious science fiction by giving it a science hook. Flash forward to 20 years after civilization has been destroyed by said fungal invasion. Pascal plays Joel Miller, just a guy in Texas with a daughter and a brother. Within hours on an otherwise normal day, people start acting crazy, and some have what looks like sprouts emerging from their mouths to attack other people. Soon the audience sees regular people have been converted into Guillermo del Toro-inspired monsters.
So what’s all the hype about? The casting of Pascal is obviously the appeal, and likely where the production spent all its money, but the actor seems out of place here as he gives a serious, dramatic performance that conjures a Deliverance era Burt Reynolds. This is a movie star who is stuck in a TV series based on a video game, with 1980s vintage monster makeup and a production that couldn’t look any cheaper. Pascal, who plays the bounty hunter of the one of TV’s biggest series, The Mandalorian, was possibly too obvious a choice because of the similarity of the roles–“a lost and loner Pascal helps a youngling find its way in a strange new world”–got it.
Unfortunately the best character, Joel’s daughter Sarah, played by young actress Nico Parker, is plucked off in the first episode. The only reason to sit through episode two is that the second best character, Anna Torv’s survivor Tess, is, of course, killed off by the end of the second episode (worse, she becomes inexplicably stupid in her last scene). It’s all predictable–the series writers don’t try to hide what’s coming next at any point.
The first character killed off is replaced in the story by Bella Ramsey’s Ellie, an annoying, non-stop swearing, entitled teenager who is angry at everything and everyone. Why didn’t they swap Ramsey and Parker’s roles? Parker would have made a more endearing and interesting Ellie as the survivor (maybe even reason to return for a third episode). If the point is to follow the video game, then why not swap the actresses? Ellie is another “chosen one” character, the last, best hope for humanity, one of the most over-used tropes.
The series lacks creativity–this has all been done before. It also takes itself too seriously. Shaun of the Dead, Army of the Dead, Evil Dead, Glitch, Overlord, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and iZombie work because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Even more on point, Resident Evil, also an adaptation of a video game, isn’t bogged down with characters emoting and monologing in its many live-action and animated adaptations. All these other shows also have something in common missing from The Last of Us: they’re all fun, most making room for a laugh or two. Even the historical zombie series Kingdom has some interesting genre features to keep the drama from getting boring.
In one scene Joel and his brother (Gabriel Luna) are separated by an overturned truck. Instead of walking around it to be reunited, they agree to meet far away later. Yes, they are in the middle of a zombie horde, but they were only a few yards apart. The writers must not have been able to concoct a way to get them apart. It’s lazy writing.
The production looks like copies of The Man in the High Castle sets and scenes, except a city with fallen skyscrapers looks like film school students could have done it better. As for the plot, it’s unthinkable that characters walk around when a fungus spread is killing off everyone, without any concern for breathing in the fungus. Nobody in the series is masked, except for a Latin American scientist who determines the only way to eliminate the menace is to bomb all the populated places on the planet. The story borrows much from The Man in the High Castle, especially plot points of its third season. And the makeup work shows no inspiration or logic tied to the designs.
We’re three years into a pandemic. Does anyone really have the stomach for more pandemic TV? Or put it this way: Even if half of us understand science and the other half only think we do, doesn’t HBO think we all know absurd science when we see it?
One last thing: HBO’s need to use nudity for shock value gets old, and it’s frequently offensive. Here we see a dead woman entirely nude lying on an exam table, when she could have been covered. The nudity adds nothing to the story whatsoever, and it’s not a quick flash but a slow scene. It’s the definition of gratuitous.
The pitch for the show must have been easy: The Last of Us is The War of the Worlds with zombies. The many adaptations of H.G. Wells story all did it better. It’s difficult to continue watching unlikable characters after being teased with more appealing ones. For those who must absorb all the latest zombie content, this must be for you. For everyone else, it’s one to take a pass on. The Last of Us is streaming now on HBO Max, with new episodes arriving Sundays.