Your one and only warning: this article contains spoilers for The Last Of Us and associated DLC.
If you've just finished The Last Of Us, recently remastered for the PlayStation 4 and pretty much automatically the best title available on Sony's new-gen machine, no doubt you're experiencing a sensation of emptiness.
It's that sort of game. It takes over your free time, filling it with responsibilities: to the central character of Joel, desperate to make up for previous mistakes by doing right by the teenage Ellie who, herself, has agendas born from deep-rooted regrets revealed in the game's solo-player expansion content, Left Behind.
There are due care considerations to these cover-starring protagonists and an affecting supporting cast. Few games line up an array of extras as compelling in their own rights as the smuggler Tess, perhaps a previous partner of Joel's and whose self-sacrifice is one of the game's earliest emotional lurches; the Lincoln mechanic Bill, whose fraught romance with a guy named Frank is one of many side-stories never fully explored; and brothers Sam and Henry, who briefly team up with Joel and Ellie before tragic circumstances tear their paths apart.
Tess's last stand.
Developer Naughty Dog has long traded in movie-like scripting, albeit spread over very un-movie-like playtimes, presenting an ensemble of non-player characters that are both believable as people and essential as gameplay devices. The first Uncharted, Drake's Fortune, set narrative wheels in motion that have spun through to The Last Of Us and the forthcoming PS4 Uncharted game, A Thief's End, due out in 2015. So a transfer from control pads to cinema screens was perhaps always on the cards: an Uncharted movie has been given a release date of June 10th, 2016, and The Last Of Us will be making the same transition.
Which, as great as the game of The Last Of Us is, doesn't fill me with hope. Uncharted should work, riffing as it does on the Indiana Jones series of films – Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was basically ...The Last Crusade anyway, so a little more brazen borrowing from Spielberg's boys-own adventures shouldn't hurt any.
But The Last Of Us is different – a slower, albeit no-less-linear experience compared to the frantic action of Uncharted, its filmic influences are drawn from rather more morose sources. Its pandemic plotline, which sees vast swathes of the human population mutated and ultimately wiped out by a deadly fungal infection, attracts comparisons to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, a story adapted for cinema several times and the foundations upon which George A Romero's 1968 flick Night Of The Living Dead was built. The Last Of Us nods the way of another Romero movie, Dawn Of The Dead, with the shopping mall setting of Left Behind.
The father-and-child dynamic of the leads, plus their journey across a shattered America, is hugely evocative of Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalypse travelogue The Road, a 2006 novel adapted into a Viggo Mortensen-starring movie of 2009. There's even some Jurassic Park at play in Naughty Dog's sombre slice of modern software, as a break from the life-or-death breathlessness of the game's action sequences finds Ellie reaching out to some passing giraffes, escaped from the local zoo. It's a sneeze away from Alexis meeting a Brachiosaur, but still "so fucking cool".
People actually cried at the giraffes. I know I felt a little twinge of something. But while it liberally loans a number of storyline beats from motion pictures before it, The Last Of Us is a game first and foremost, unlikely to be confused for the 'interactive dramas' of Parisian studio Quantic Dream – take Beyond: Two Souls, for example – or the barely interactive at all full-motion-video titles produced by teams like Digital Pictures, whose schlock-horror video(game) nasty Night Trap is apparently set for a revival. Paid for by idiots, obviously.
You mash the square button to break through a pane of glass. You're prompted to press triangle to stab an infected enemy in the neck. Hold R2 to listen with such sensory magnificence as to 'see' enemies through walls (like the Detective Vision of Rocksteady's Batman games). There is aiming and shooting like every third-person game worth a damn since Resident Evil 4. You interact with The Last Of Us, and that's so key: take away this level of involvement and the seams begin to pull apart, the game's inspirations become dominant. Taken out of gaming context, it's a very long, sometimes quite tedious film with regular glimpses of things you've seen before.
The game's writer, Neil Drukmann, is charged with condensing this 15-hours-or-so game into a two-hour movie, and has moved from a position of maintaining that the adaptation will stay close to the PlayStation plotline to, now, saying it'll be "quite different" – albeit with the same, numbing ending. Which makes sense – the drawn-out tension of the game, poking around in a flooded hotel basement and creeping through an infected-overrun subway station, would dissipate tremendously when the participant becomes the spectator. These elements need to become tighter, even more heighted of risk, so as to amplify the suspense without snapping it through prolonged pressure.
Be sure to stay quiet in the subway
But Druckmann isn't a Hollywood scriptwriter. He's a programmer turned creative director who's been lucky a couple of times with his in-game stories. He has a co-writer credit on the Uncharted series standout Among Thieves, and the end results for The Last Of Us took the best part of a decade to come to fruition, Druckmann exploring comparable themes in an unpublished comic titled The Turning between 2004 and 2006. Even with industry veteran Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) as producer, no doubt looking over Druckmann's shoulder during the writing phase, going from the games world into movies, on a project carrying massive expectations, is going to be an intimidating ask. Druckmann's inexperience in the role might ultimately undermine the entire project.
There are other factors that give the forthcoming film poor chances of success – not least of all the existing precedent for games-to-movies adaptations. From 1993's terrifically bodged Super Mario Bros. with the late Bob Hoskins in the Mario role – you'll find more Mushroom Kingdom-accurate storytelling in porn parodies, so I'm told – to 2010's Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, there's one distinctive quality that binds these pixels-to-picture-houses cross-medium conversions: they are indubitably awful. The Jake Gyllenhall-starring Prince Of Persia is actually the highest-grossing video game adaptation to date, taking $336 million (£207 million) at the box office. Which just goes to prove that people can be really stupid with their money.
The Last Of Us won't be an all-action, brightly coloured, unashamedly camp cinema experience. It won't do a Resident Evil and take the pulse-raising scares of its source game(s) and make nonsensical, teenage-boys-only gore-fests, the kind of movies that critical thrashings can't dent the continuing commercial success of. Druckmann and company will be looking to The Road as a model, surely – but the movie of McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning modern classic only just recouped its modest budget, despite generous reviews. The Last Of Us can't be a flop. There are too many reputations riding on this movie.
A stinker wouldn't just damage Druckmann and Raimi but also Naughty Dog, at the moment rightly regarded as Sony Computer Entertainment's most important subsidiary developer. It could kill the franchise dead, closing the half-open door to a sequel proper – perhaps one set in Europe. Nobody is foolish enough to expect a film as striking as, say, 2006's atmospherically similar Children Of Men, which moved P.D. James's novel of the same name into multiplexes with emotionally devastating, visually dazzling impact. But, equally, it has to offer more than something like Christophe Gans' Silent Hill, which stole striking scenes from Konami's survival horror series but forgot to stitch them together in anything approaching a coherent manner.
Silent Hill: wasn't very good, at all
Casting will be crucial. Reports connecting 17-year-old English actress Maisie Williams to the role of Ellie are widespread, and her performances as Arya Stark in HBO's Game Of Thrones suggest she's more than capable of carrying the character's complex emotional stresses and independent streak. In the game, Ellie is excellently portrayed by Ashley Johnson, who at 31 is too old for the movie role – but her natural chemistry with the voice of Joel, video games regular Troy Baker (also Booker in BioShock Infinite, and The Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins), comprises a vital component of its appeal. Their performances gave Druckmann's script extra levels of gravitas, exchanges during moments of relative levity never forced. We laughed with them, while all around was chaos. If Williams signs up, who she's paired with will perhaps be more defining for The Last Of Us movie than anything other aspect of its production.
I don't want The Last Of Us to be bad, but history isn't kind to its chances of coming close to the game's significance within its medium. Video game movies are bad, that's clear enough, and Raimi's recent productions have been average to poor. 2013's Evil Dead attracted a small ripple of respect (and brought in over fives times its budget at the box office, so on that front was a runaway success), but The Exorcist-channelling The Possession of 2012 was a derivative piece of pop-corny crap. His Drag Me To Hell of 2009, which he also directed, was a hoot, but wasn't in the spirit that fans of The Last Of Us will expect from their movie – or tolerate.
Everything adds up and, sorry, but The Last Of Us movie will almost certainly suck. I'll be so happy if I'm wrong, but really? Games into movies do not go, just as movies into games so often produces cheap and nasty garbage. Nobody needs a cheap and nasty The Last Of Us. That'd be a tragedy greater than any witnessed in the game itself.
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