The Last of Us review: HBO breaks Hollywood’s video game curse

“The primary season of HBO’s The Last of Us is a robust, occasionally magnificent adaptation of Naughty Dog’s hit, post-apocalyptic 2013 video game.”


  • Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s infectious chemistry
  • Joel and Ellie’s moving core relationship
  • Several standout supporting guest performances
  • One unforgettable standalone episode


  • An indistinct visual style and aesthetic
  • A strict adherence to its source material that may render it dramatically inert
  • An uneven first two episodes

The Last of Us is probably the most faithful video game adaptation that has ever been produced. The brand new HBO series, which comes from Chernobyl author Craig Mazin and Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann, not only sticks near the story told in its 2013 source material, nevertheless it often replicates entire scenes from that game. This fact won’t occur to any viewers who aren’t accustomed to Naughty Dog’s original Last of Us games. For individuals who are accustomed to the property, though, watching the HBO series’ 9-episode first season could also be an unexpectedly odd experience.

On the one hand, it’s undeniably refreshing to see a video game adaptation that’s genuinely confident within the strength of its source material. However, watching stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey act out iconic scenes line-for-line that were already performed quite well by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker is an experience that not only invites unfair comparisons between the series and its video game predecessor but additionally raises questions on the need of the show’s creation.

In spite of everything, if a TV show goes to easily recreate lots of the scenes, lines of dialogue, and even music cues present in its source material, as The Last of Us does, then what’s the purpose in even making it? On this case, that query is especially value asking, given how effective the unique Last of Us stays nearly a decade after its release. Fortunately, HBO’s The Last of Us adds enough to its source material’s story to ultimately justify its existence. The truth is, lots of the series’ best moments aren’t just those that were created specifically for it, but additionally directly diverge from the canon of the primary two Last of Us games.

Pedro Pascal sits next to Anna Torv in The Last of Us.Liane Hentscher/HBO

As those that have played The Last of Us will likely be the primary to inform you, its story will not be necessarily groundbreaking. The brand new HBO series is primarily set in a post-apocalyptic world that has turn into overrun with fungi-covered, zombie-like humans. At the middle of its story is Joel Miller (Pascal), a gruff, grief-stricken middle-aged man whose brutal survival skills have made him a reliable smuggler in The Last of Us’ dystopian world. For many of its first season, the series follows Joel as he attempts to securely smuggle a 14-year-old girl named Ellie (Ramsey) across a dangerous, zombie-ridden version of America.

That’s where the true strength of each 2013’s The Last of Us and its TV adaptation lies. Over the course of its first 9 episodes, The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie as they survive a series of losses and hardships that only bring them closer together. The HBO series’ middle episodes, specifically, focus heavily on the gradual deepening of Ellie and Joel’s bond, which is basically why these installments work higher than the show’s impactful but intentionally slow first two chapters. Pascal and Ramsey have undeniable chemistry together, and under Mazin and Druckmann’s careful watch, Ellie and Joel’s strong, complicated relationship is dropped at life on-screen without issue.

As is the case in the unique Last of Us games, the HBO series’ best scenes often aren’t any of its various motion set pieces — a few of which inevitably feel very video game-y — but quite the conversations that Ellie and Joel share over campfires or within the darkened rooms of abandoned skyscrapers. Whether or not they’re sniping at one another or just laughing on the deliciously bad puns that Ellie loves, Pascal and Ramsey shine the brightest in The Last of Us at any time when they’re allowed to truly let their guards down and bounce off of one another. Outside of Pascal and Ramsey, Gabriel Luna also turns in a wealthy, emotionally difficult performance as Tommy, Joel’s estranged brother, as does Anna Torv as Tess, Joel’s post-apocalyptic smuggling partner.

Pedro Pascal stands in front of Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us.Liane Hentscher/HBO

While The Last of Us works higher as a road drama than as a post-apocalyptic blockbuster, there are moments during which the series nails its story’s horror tone higher than the video games that inspired it. The series’ second and fifth installments each feature sequences during which its infected zombies feel dangerously invulnerable and horrifyingly grotesque. The opening minutes of The Last of Us’ second episode, specifically, confront the science behind the series’ fungus-centric zombie transformations and have a medical examination that’s effectively stomach-churning.

If there may be one overarching criticism to be product of The Last of Us’ first season, it’s that the show never feels quite as visually atmospheric or inventive because it should. Mazin makes his TV directing debut with the series’ premiere installment, but while he effectively emphasizes the episode’s biggest emotional beats, he ultimately fails to determine a robust visual identity for The Last of Us. Directors like Peter Hoar and Ali Abbasi help give among the series’ later installments greater cinematic weight, but not even The Last of Us’ admittedly impressive computer graphics are enough to make it visually encourage awe or wonder.

The strength of Mazin and Druckmann’s writing helps make up for The Last of Us’ visual shortcomings. The 2 creatives are the one credited writers on the series, and together, they create a cohesive vision to The Last of Us that connects all of its first 9 chapters together. Mazin, specifically, continues to prove his knack for episodic storytelling, delivering a handful of chapters throughout the series’ middle section that impress with their efficiency and emotional insight. Several of the show’s Mazin-penned episodes are also those during which The Last of Us diverges probably the most from its source material.

Pedro Pascal holds a flashlight in The Last of Us.Liane Hentscher/HBO

That’s especially the case with The Last of Us’ third episode, which opens in a spot that fans of the series’ original game will recognize only to quickly veer off into totally latest territory. The episode, which includes a guest appearance from Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, firmly ranks as probably the most memorable and distinct of The Last of Us’ first nine chapters. Over the course of its runtime, the episode’s emotional weight step by step accumulates until it overwhelms, and that’s thanks not only to its own resonance but additionally the thematic insight it provides into the overarching story of 2013’s The Last of Us and 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.

In doing so, The Last of Us’ third episode lays the groundwork for an exciting future for the series, one which not only continues to chart Ellie and Joel’s journey but additionally focuses on telling separate stories that further enrich the show’s central themes. That’s a creative direction Mazin and Druckmann should little question pursue, especially given the proven fact that any future seasons of the show will force them to begin addressing among the flaws of The Last of Us Part II, a lot of which the duo could theoretically fix by adopting the very structural freedom that their HBO series occasionally assumes throughout its first season.

The unique Last of Us has, in fact, long been regarded by many as the perfect narrative video game that’s ever been made, so it’s easy to see why Mazin and Druckmann have chosen to honor it so deeply. The brand new HBO series even features appearances from a handful of the voice actors who helped bring The Last of Us to life for the primary time, including each Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker. Johnson’s role, in specific, not only works as a moving tribute to her own Last of Us legacy, nevertheless it also adds greater weight and context to the live-action series’ overall story.

That’s true of all of the perfect moments in The Last of Us season 1. The brand new series is a lovingly made, often emotionally riveting adaptation of what’s one of the treasured titles in video game history. The HBO show’s first two installments are admittedly removed from perfect, and there are moments throughout The Last of Us’ first season where it looks like it is just retracing its source material’s footsteps. Nevertheless, those flaws don’t prevent The Last of Us from rating solidly as the perfect and most emotionally wealthy video game adaptation that Hollywood has ever produced.

The Last of Us’ first season also sets up a future for the show that’s less restricted to the paths set by its source material and, due to this fact, more open to a good greater breadth of drama and emotional complexity. Whether or not that’s actually what Mazin and Druckmann have planned for The Last of Us stays to be seen, but so far as video game adaptations go, it seems protected to say that the HBO series is already off to a really promising start.

The Last of Us premieres Sunday, January 15 on HBO. Digital Trends was given early access to all nine episodes of the series’ first season.

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