If there’s one thing I’m known for here at Polygon, it’s that I’m a fan of big guys fighting on screen. One of the first things I wrote here was a review of the “Sherlock Holmes, but the Hulk” process. Reacher (it s funny!). And while I didn’t like it The Rings of PowerI liked the big orc that appeared in one episode so much that I wrote an ode to it and gave it a name.
So when I heard that a giant was going to be infected in episode 5 of it The last of us, I was excited. The show has exceeded my expectations so far in its ability to recreate some of the fungal horror from the video game, especially the clickers, with amazing use of practical effects and CG-enhanced prosthetics to create monsters that are scary precisely because they are so tangible.
Unfortunately, I was set up for disappointment. The big infected – let’s call it Big Fungus, but it looks like a version of the Bloater from the games – appears in a black, frantic battle scene, as hordes of infected pour out of the ground to attack the Kansas City resistance and our terrified heroes . The action scene is disappointing on its own and can’t even match the gas station exchange of episode four. While he was crystal clear in his mess, clearly showing the audience the action and where the relevant parts were, it suffered from a poorly lit night setting where it was hard to see anything, as well as the camera focusing mostly on the people who they hide or run away, despite one of the few human-infested battles in the show. But as a scholar of Big Fighters On Screen, I was more disappointed with how they slaughtered my bloated boy.
When Big Fungus rises from the ground, it’s supposed to be an awe-inspiring moment, due to the lad’s sheer size (he should have been even bigger, but that’s another point). But what undermines this moment is how clearly he doesn’t fit into the world around him.
In a world surrounded by more convincing prosthetics and makeup for the infected, Big Fungus stands out like a big sore thumb. It’s not just how it looks – although it looks pretty badass – it’s also how it moves. When Big Fungus flies, you don’t feel the interactions with the world around him, even though there were practical effects and an actor involved, enhanced by VFX. Somehow, Big Fungus doesn’t yet have a tangible presence and doesn’t seem to occupy any real space. Instead, she moves like a weightless ball, swaying awkwardly towards the human characters and suffering greatly from the juxtaposition of superior effects around her.
There was a chance that Big Fungus’ clumsy move would work — The last of us it’s a video game adaptation, after all, and it’s not afraid to lean on some video game choices. A great example is the stellar child click in the episode, also a mix of practical and digital effects, which was fearful precisely because of the inhuman way they moved, like a jumble of limbs and joints flocking to something without a full understanding of how those limbs and joints were supposed to work. But the show doesn’t play up Big Fungus’ awkward and unrealistic movements for extra scares, instead trying to sell it as a real presence. Unfortunately, nothing about the Big Fungus is all that real.
I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a smear against digital effects. They can be great! Some things are only possible with digital effects, and there are great, innovative filmmakers doing great work in the digital space. Some of my favorite stunts and action beats are combinations of practical and digital effects.
It’s instead another example of a broader problem with how HBO The last of us treats the Infected at times: as opportunities for easter eggs rather than moments of genuine excitement or tension. Sure there are moments where the infected are used in good and interesting ways – Joel tries to reload his gun while holding a flashlight as a clicker approaches in episode 2 – but Big Fungus felt like an unlikely example of playing on the hits and making for Great TV moments without adding anything of substance.
We recognize the appearance of Big Fungus and the way he fights from the game, and that he’s supposed to be a big deal from the musical cues and just because of his sheer scale. But the show isn’t interested in doing much else with it. It shows up, looks weird and weird, and then it’s over. It’s not enough to just point to a recognizable character and say, “I recognize that!” If you’re going to do something, it’s worth doing it right. And it breaks my heart that Big Fungus missed the mark.