The Last of Us – humanity at the end of the world

His biggest concern is a virus, are the first words heard from a scientist on a talk show. The year is 1968, the panel discusses deadly threats to humanity. One almost smiles when the second researcher joins in. Viruses have always been with us. But what about fungi, mushrooms that could eventually adapt to the human organism. These are things “that don’t kill us, they want to control us”.

Doomsday without Covid

This opening scene does not represent a continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, but is the prelude to the apocalyptic scenario in “The Last of Us”. The HBO series, which premieres on Sky on January 16, is based on Neil Druckmann’s 2013 video game, widely recognized as one of the greatest video games of all time.

Craig Mazin, who had already implemented doomsday scenarios very impressively and won several awards in the series “Chernobyl” (2019), took over the reins of the adaptation. So the pressure to produce a hit was high. Especially since video game adaptations had previously delivered mixed results. But Mazin and Druckmann have withstood this and offer with “The Last of Us” an exceptionally dense drama that finds the perfect balance between the obligatory shooting scenes and the smaller human tones.

Pedro Pascal is back as a backup daddy after The Mandalorian. He is the smuggler Joel who has to transport the young Ellie (“Games of Thrones” discovery Bella Ramsey) across the USA to the resistance group “Fireflies”. They believe that Ellie’s immunity to the pathogen, a mutated version of the fungus Cordyceps, could create a cure. This transforms people into zombie-like creatures when infected. But not only the infected, but also agents of the USA, which has mutated into a police state, and human traffickers pose a risk for the duo. In between, the series from 2023 returns again and again to the year of the outbreak, 2003. It shows the chaos, Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker), who died in the eruption, or his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), also a survivor with whom he later fell out. Joel wants to find him on his journey with Ellie, which means that he doesn’t initially act entirely selflessly as her protector.

Visually impressive

“The Last of Us” may not reinvent the post-apocalypse genre. For this, the series follows too many well-known rules. Whether it’s the obligatory trauma of someone close being infected, or the small isolated communities that managed to save themselves, to the one person sacrificing themselves as the infected attack out of nowhere. Yet she rises from this mass of déjà vu to create her own identity.

Mazin and Druckmann approach the source material respectfully, but also make changes from time to time. In the episode, viewers get to know the latter better about Billy (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), although he only appeared as a corpse in the first game. The hunters of Kansas City are given a face and backstory by Melanie Lynskey’s leader, Kathleen.

This focus on the human element adds depth to the series and provides a counterpoint to the equally impressive body-horror moments of the infected, as well as the gun-loading confrontations.

And the series is visually impressive. Aside from the obvious CGI sequences of decaying US cities, she offers meticulously designed sets where nature rages as well as the all-encompassing yellowed arms of dead Cordyceps outbreaks.

But the heart of the matter is and remains humanity. The optimism that something good lives on alongside all the horror. Fear for the well-being of others. So the father-daughter relationship that develops between the bitter Joel and the lively Ellie, who knows no world outside of the pandemic, is a pleasant break from the otherwise rather fundamentally pessimistic apocalypses. She makes “The Last of Us” infectiously entertaining, even without cordyceps.

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