Review: HBO's 'The Last of Us' is the best video game adaptation ever – USA TODAY

As a general rule, video games don’t usually make for good TV. 
In spite of their often moving narratives, startling imagery and millions of fans around the world, Hollywood has had a devil of a time trying to turn even the most popular games into creatively and commercially successful films and TV shows. There are the decent if hokey adaptations, like Netflix’s “The Witcher” (also based on a book series); the boring ones such as Paramount+’s lethargic “Halo”; and the unspeakably terrible ones, like the 1993 “Super Mario Bros.” film, which plays like a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch (an upcoming Mario film, featuring Chris Pratt voicing the titular plumber, has already been maligned online before its release). 
This is why it feels like HBO’s adaptation of the acclaimed PlayStation game “The Last of Us” (Sunday, 9 EST/PST, ★★★ out of four) is such a big achievement. From “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin, “Us” is a high-gloss zombie apocalypse story like “The Walking Dead,” but with just as much feeling as fighting. Starring “Game of Thrones” alums Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, it brings the visceral, intimate quality of a video game without feeling like you’re stuck in an uncanny valley playing one. “Us” is an aggressively competent series, if not a transcendent one, but the dozens of failed game adaptations that came before it bend the curve decidedly in this one’s favor. 
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“Us” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is just a bit different from zombie stories you’ve seen. This time, the world-ending culprit isn’t a virus but a fungus that kills and controls its host body and is spread by bites from an infected body. These zombies, referred to in the show as “infected,” are covered in porous growths, can run and are harder to kill. The fungi don’t take long to end the world, and the series opens in 2003 when everything went wrong before jumping 20 years ahead to a totalitarian society that has persevered in the face of death and destruction. 
Joel (Pascal) lost his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) in the initial outbreak, and two decades of trauma have turned him into a hard, unforgiving man. He and fellow survivor Tess (Anna Torv, “Mindhunter), are trying to escape the fascist-controlled “Quarantine Zone” in Boston when they cross paths with Ellie (Ramsey). She’s a 14-year-old born into the dystopian world who might be the key to eradicating the fungal infection. Eventually, Joel agrees to bring Ellie west to a group of doctors who are searching for a cure. 
More: USA TODAY’s review of the original video game
It’s clear, even for someone who has never played a single minute of “Us” on a PlayStation, that there’s something special about the story, and that Mazin has done a thoughtful job bringing it to life. The broken, overgrown cityscapes Joel and Ellie pass through are haunting and beautiful, and the mushroom zombies impressively repulsive and far scarier than that description would suggest. “Us” is likely to face endless comparisons to “Walking Dead,” given the latter’s one-time status as the show-of-the-moment, but “Us” feels visually distinct from that series, which was all boring blood and guts and Georgia backwoods. 
Ramsey and Pascal are fantastic, well-suited to their roles and bursting with cheeky chemistry in their every scene. Ramsey is silly and playful, as she was in the 2022 film “Catherine Called Birdy,” and a magnet for your eyes amid the chaos, as she was in “Thrones.” Unburdened by the bulky helmet and monotone he’s saddled with in Disney+’s “The Mandalorian,” Pascal finally gets to act.
Like a cut scene in a video game, the story sometimes meanders away from Joel and Ellie’s journey west and focuses on other slices of humanity surviving in the wake of the end of the world, and these vignettes are what really makes “Us” compelling. You might wish the show would focus on them even more. The third episode, about a survivalist played by Nick Offerman and the man he falls in love with (Murray Bartlett, “The White Lotus”), features the kind of writing and acting that can knock you flat. 
“Us” isn’t really a groundbreaking series, but it is well done, compelling and gripping, a superb example of a zombie story done the right way. It could be bolder and take bigger risks. But that’s the trouble when you’re working from a known story with a dedicated following: gambling with storytelling isn’t usually rewarded. More than anything else, “Us” feels designed not to offend those gamers who love the original so much, down to a massive super-zombie showing up in one episode who feels straight out of a “boss fight” in the game. 
We’re simply not used to getting smart, visually arresting and even watchable video game adaptations. “Us” might be the best one yet, even if it’s just a darn good TV show.  

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