Wednesday, September 4, 2013

'The Last of Us' had me at Loading Mode

                                                               Listen here, while reading

If  somebody were about to ask me what was the best new movie I saw this summer,   I wouldn’t know what to answer.

In the beginning of   June, I couldn’t wait to be swept off my feet by  the all new, reinvented in the Snyder/Nolan way  ‘Man of Steel’ .

Consequently   I was completely unaware, unsuspected   and unprepared   for the hard landing.
Having in mind Steven Soderbergh’s   passionate speech about the State of Cinema and the mechanisms that get movies made today, this new alien with the S, seemed to be less of the legitimate heir of  his brilliant creators and more of the pampered child of the Hollywood studio lawyers/ accountants/executives.

After establishing that Man of Steel was not to be my … Krypton Knight, I turned to my new hope, the ‘District 9’ director Neill Blomkamp  and his new  film Elysium.
Fortunately there was no hard landing there,   neither novelty,   nor   surprise.

All the things I was looking for in a movie this blockbuster summer were about to come from the most unexpected place: The video game industry.

Being a fan of  the ‘Uncharted’ series, ‘Naughty Dog’ and the Zombie Saga I  knew I had to have a good look at this next generation video game. It was entitled ‘The Last of Us’ and I couldn’t help but notice that Ellen Page was casted as Ellie, one of the two protagonists. 

(As I found out later Ellie’s   resemblance to Ellen was …coincidental. Ellie’s overall similarity to Ellen’s characteristic voice, figure and acting were also symptomatic…)

Having had no high  hopes nor excessive amount of enthusiasm,   I   was reluctantly immersed in its post-apocalyptic world.

Minutes later, it was already too late for me to go back to real life. I had to kiss  normality goodbye.

This game had me at loading… loading… loading mode.

The story in a nutshell: 
It has been 20 years after the outbreak of a pandemic which destroyed civilization and life as we know it and   turned most of the United States  population into man-eating  zombie-like monsters.   
Joel is a survivor who lives in Boston. He and his friend Tess get by  by  smuggling  and trading goods.  When they come across the leader of a rebel group, the 'Fireflies', they undertake the task to smuggle a teenage girl, Ellie, outside the quarantine zone. 
Joel and Tess  soon  realize how unique and important   Ellie is, since she has developed an immunity to the infection that could  lead to a cure. Joel and Ellie wander about  the ravaged and dangerous American cities and countryside, struggling to stay alive so that they can continue their journey to the Fireflies headquarters and  give hope to the world.

All the fundamental elements that we usually find in great filmmaking are here: Great photography, amazing art direction and sound editing, impressing acting, yes acting   and above all well developed characters and  good old fashioned solid plot and storytelling.

The motion capture performances by actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson breathe life into Joel and Ellie. It is the first time   we see believable  facial expressions and are easily moved by the characters’ suffering and hardship even during intense game playing. This makes it difficult not to constantly worrying about the heroes, especially during the fighting sequences.

As the game unfolds, so does  the relationship between the two protagonists. 

It is on this relationship that the story invests and it pays off  amazingly until the very end. 

The game playing uses a third-person perspective with gun fighting,  combat and cover techniques. There is a variety of weapons picked by the characters: blade, rifle, shotgun, a bow (very useful when in stealth mode), flame thrower (!), assault rifle pistol, revolver, scoped revolver-like handgun called the "El Diablo", and a sawed-off one handed shotgun called the "Shorty".

There are also many different weapons that can be scavenged from the environment like metal pipes, planks, baseball bats, machetes, and hatchets. Items like empty bottles and bricks can be picked up and thrown to distract or stun enemies.

The game also features a crafting system. By going into the backpack, the player can use recipes introduced throughout the game to forge useful supplies like Molotov cocktails, or find a workbench and upgrade arms, or collect items that can improve the player’s   physical abilities.

Strategy techniques are essential, especially when outnumbered (that is just about always) so you have to make every bullet count and use supplies with caution.
In many cases I was faced with the dilemma: make a Molotov cocktail or craft a medicine kit?

During non-fighting   transitional periods   the player can explore the environment, while engaging in  conversations between the characters, where they discuss their current or past situation,  the surrounding environment, their objectives or  make jokes, and  well … bond.

The music score of ‘The Last of Us’ is quite an accomplishment. Composed by the two-time Academy Award for best original score winner Gustavo Santaolalla (‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘Babel’, ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’), the main theme is mainly acoustic guitar played by Santaolalla  himself, in a way that gives  the story room to breathe.  
And it is compelling.

The game creators’ understanding of   human nature is well substantiated, profound and realistic. Throughout the history of human suffering and Man's need to protect himself when faced with the threat of a great disaster or extinction Man had to make life turning decisions  like becoming sort of   a … serial killer.

Ellie: “This is our routine;  day and night all we do is survive”

Questions like:  “Could you tell a friend from foe, could you kill, could you do worse ? “ , are easily answered when the inbuilt instincts for survival and self preservation take over.

When Joel is asked if he fears the infested, he states: “They are predictable, normal people scare me”. The normal people are the real foes  the survival antagonists and the true monsters.

After all Man is the most ferocious beast of all.

So here it is:  The Last of Us is a next generation video game, a PS3 exclusive, a great  thriller  with   multi layered  storytelling,  a   digital masterpiece, an experience,  an interactive movie   and hopefully a future feature film  probably not starring  Ellen Page.

You can find the Greek version of my review right HERE

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