Video game movies are almost universally poorly-received. The critics don’t like them, they don’t resonate with general audiences, and they frequently have too little confidence in the source material to satisfy the fans. This was a similar place the superhero movie was in at the turn of the century. While films like Warcraft have their defenders, a lot of studios and moviegoers aren’t sold on the concept of a video game movie in the same way they are with superheroes -a genre that only grew to its current status after its success was proven in a number of different ways. Superman and Batman were successfully brought to the screen in early iterations, but it took the risk of making X-Men in 2000 for studios to perk up and realise that there was money to be made. The Dark Knight then proved that these films can be thematically rich, with The Avengers showing that a comic splash page can be brought to life without sacrificing character. Now we’ve got a Black Panther movie coming out next year and I’m a very happy nerd. But video games movies? It’s still up in the air. The release of Assassin’s Creed is eagerly anticipated partly because its financial and critical success could turn the tide for the industry. Either way, the genre needs to prove its worth with a game that is ripe for adaptation and successful in its own right. That game is The Last of Us.
The American video game developer Naughty Dog made their name through the platformer and adventure genres with the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter series, which were both popular and critically praised. From this, they moved onto Uncharted, a series of games which owed much to the Indiana Jones film series– a journey through lost cities, mercenary warfare, and mystical artefacts. The developers’ work has become increasingly cinematic as their skill and the technology available improves synchronously, so their next step was to leave Nathan Drake’s globe-trotting adventures and enormous set-pieces behind (for a short while at least) for something more grounded. With new motion capture techniques, wherein voice actors had the opportunity to act and respond to one another, they made The Last of Us – easily one of my favourite games of all time.
The Last of Us is set in a near-future where the outbreak of a mutated fungus that transforms its human hosts into cannibalistic monsters has sent the United States into disarray. Joel manages to survive, but not without losing someone close to him. Twenty years later, the country is split into military-patrolled quarantined zones and the outside, where the infected roam and human scavengers do whatever they can to survive. With martial law in effect, supplies are smuggled in from the infected areas, and a rebel group known as the Fireflies opposes the military regime. Joel now works as one of these smugglers, and is forced to risk a journey into the infected areas on the behest of the Fireflies, transporting a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. While it doesn’t conform to traditional film structure in quite the same way as the developers’ next effort (Uncharted: A Thief’s End) it provides an incredibly useful blueprint from which you can create a narrative suitable for a two-hour film despite its 14-or-so hours of playtime. Story, concept art, character development – it’s all there. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed where there are a number of protagonists, settings, and conspiracies to choose from – in which we’ll no doubt see certain aspects jettisoned for the sake of streamlining the narrative – nor is it the recently announced Tetris movie, which has so little narrative they’ll be inventing one for it.
The Last of Us merely requires that certain encounters and areas be dropped for the sake of slimming it down, but there are plenty of scenes that translate perfectly (the prologue in particular doesn’t need to be changed at all). There aren’t any extraneous characters. Tess re-contextualises what Joel’s life has become in the aftermath of the outbreak, and pushes him to move past their shared world to do something good. Bill voices Joel’s own doubts about looking after Ellie without him having to say them, and raises concerns over the danger of growing too attached. Sam and Henry give our protagonists someone to relate to (as substitute parent figures and children). Tommy
serves a reminder of the past, for the audience and Joel, to keep Sarah’s memory close to the surface. Marlene sets the stakes and the plot in motion. And David is someone for Ellie to overcome alone. The game puts a focus on character development, with its world-building used to inform character and theme, and its character and themes to inform its plot. Joel and Ellie have arcs together and individually, and the apocalyptic future gives them allows them to explore the limits of human perseverance. As The Last of Us put the player in the role of a morally grey character, whose background character moments refer to a man who has done the same or worse than the bandits who serve as their most frequent antagonists, the film would be giving us a hero with the same attributes – one that we emotionally invest in and follow through this dark world. Joel’s cynical survivor, refusing to deal with his grief, is countered by Ellie’s perspective. She was born after the outbreak, growing up in a military base, safe from the inhumanity outside the quarantined zone. She’s optimistic, and while she’s raw from a recent trauma, she doesn’t know the immorality mankind is capable of like Joel does.
Surviving in a destroyed world where the cruelty and desperation of mankind is the enemy is a common theme of zombie and post-apocalyptic movies; and with a grizzled adult escorting a young child, A Last of Us movie can sound familiar to those who saw 2008’s The Road. Yet the world depicted here is in fact the opposite of The Road’s burnt-out post-apocalypse – where nature perishes, leaving only supermarkets and vending machines. In The Last of Us nature has won, with ivy-coated neighbourhoods and skyscrapers crippled by the overgrown florae. While humankind struggles to survive by fighting, fleeing, and deceiving one another, nature continues as if nothing has happened. The concept art alone can form a basis for the look of the film. The art team took inspiration from photos of neighbourhoods affected by Hurricane Katrina, giving the fantastical environments a grounding in a disaster we can understand and relate to. Decaying structures of a once thriving society allows for some beautiful moments of nostalgia or social criticism – Ellie’s confusion at seeing a poster of a skinny model in an advertisement (“I thought you had plenty of food in your time?”), or her refusal to believe that an ice cream truck was a real thing. Even the virus itself is more realistic than in most zombie fiction. The Cordyceps fungi was brought to the attention of the creators through the BBC nature documentary Planet Earth – where it infects insects, taking control over their motor functions and forcing it to help cultivate the fungus. They took these real-life elements and developed them into a nightmare scenario, and it’s clear in the way that these creatures move and attack.
The previously mentioned intrusion of nature into the fragile structures of mankind provides a beautiful and melancholic backdrop to the horrors of the Cordycep infection and savagery of bandits and raiders. This juxtaposition, together with the close-quarters realism of the combat, made the game’s violence visceral and terrifying. Blockbusters often make the mistake of inflating the action to catastrophic proportions without making us feel the weight of those moments. However many skyscrapers are destroyed in Transformers movies during a brawl, none of them feel as significant as even the minor moments of films like The Raid or Mad Max: Fury Road. Close, depictions of brutality are often more effective when the cost of that violence is expressed by those who commit those acts. Green Room was an outstanding example of this – a film that portrayed violence as ugly regardless of its intent, where ‘having to kill, even in necessity, is not a heroic task but a spiritual and mental injury’. Similarly, The Last of Us refuses to allow its characters to take part in a violent act that feels noble to them or us. We want them to survive, but we become increasingly aware that the paths leading to “saving the world” or “saving the girl” aren’t nearly as morally absolute as we’ve been lead to believe by popular fiction.
In March 2014, Sony announced that Screen Gems will distribute a film adaptation, produced by Sam Raimi and with a screenplay written by The Last of Us’ Creative Director Neil Druckmann. He commented that his vision for it has “some big changes, but the tone and what the story’s trying to say is pretty faithful to the game”. While Druckmann has reportedly finished a second draft, the adaptation has entered development hell. Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams has said that she has been in talks to star as Ellie, and seems confident she’d be involved if the project ever gets off the ground. Williams has proven herself as a rebellious youth weighed down by tragedy as Arya Stark, and shown that same spark coupled with greater intensity in 2015’s The Falling. Joel was partially inspired by Josh Brolin’s role as Llewelyn Moss from No Country for Old Men, so I think he would be the perfect choice. Both actors are the right age, and suit their respective characters extremely well. Part of me just wants to see a story I love brought to the big screen in such a way (I’m currently on my sixth playthrough, not including the two separate times I watched friends play the entire game), but it also feels necessary.
The cast of The Last of Us performed a live reading in July 2014, with accompaniment by the game’s brilliant composer Gustavo Santaolalla (who must stay on for the film). One YouTuber even adapted the game into a different format – cutting together cinematics with his own gameplay to make a 7-part series with a running time of 30-50 minutes each. They both display the potential for the narrative to be adapted into something shorter and more manageable. The Last of Us offers the chance for video game movies to have fertile ground from which to build something substantial. It is also a chance for a beautiful story to reach more people, giving them things all too rare in Hollywood blockbusters – character depth, cohesion of plot and character, and a strong female lead. It can make up for the mistakes of its predecessors, and forge a new path, all while providing a compelling, poignant examination of the fragility of humanity.
Featured Image: Sony Computer Entertainment