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” procedural Reacher (it’s fun!). And while I did not like The Rings of Power, I loved the big orc that showed up in one episode so much I wrote an ode to him and gave him a name.
So when I heard there was going to be a gigantic infected in episode 5 of The Last of Us, I was excited. The show had surpassed my expectations so far in its ability to re-create some of the fungal horror from the video game, especially the clickers, with stunning use of practical effects and prosthetics augmented by CG 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 — shows up in a pitch-black, frenzied 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 fourth episode’s gas station shootout. While that one was crisp in its chaos, cleanly and clearly showing the audience the action and where the relevant parties are, this one suffered from a poorly lit night setting where it was hard to see anything, and also from the camera mostly focusing on the people hiding or running away, rather than one of the few humans-versus-infected fights in the show. But as a scholar of Big Fighters On Screen, I was most disappointed at how they massacred my bloated boy.
When Big Fungus rises out of the ground, it’s supposed to be a moment that inspires awe and terror, due to the sheer size of the lad (he should have been even bigger, but that’s another point). But what undercuts 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 large sore thumb. It’s not just how it looks — although it does look quite bad — but how it moves. When Big Fungus stomps, you don’t feel the interactions with the world around it, even though there were practical effects and an actor involved, augmented by VFX. Somehow, Big Fungus still has no tangible presence, and does not seem to occupy any real space. Instead, it moves like a weightless ball, lumbering awkwardly toward the human characters, and suffers greatly from the juxtaposition of the superior effects around it.
There was a chance to make Big Fungus’s awkward movement work — The Last of Us is a video game adaptation, after all, and isn’t afraid to lean into some video game choices. A great example is the stellar child clicker in the episode, also a mixture of practical and digital effects, which was terrifying precisely because of the inhuman way that it moved, like a jumble of limbs and joints scrambling toward something without a full understanding of how those limbs and joints are supposed to function. But the show doesn’t play up Big Fungus’ awkward and unreal movements for extra scares, instead trying to sell it as a real presence. Regretfully, nothing about Big Fungus reads as remotely real.
I don’t want this to be misread as a screed against digital effects. They can be great! Some things are only possible with digital effects, and there are excellent, 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 of how HBO’s The Last of Us treats the infected at times: as opportunities for Easter eggs rather than moments of genuine excitement or tension. There are definitely moments where the infected are used in good and interesting ways — Joel trying to reload his gun while holding a flashlight as a clicker approaches in episode 2 comes to mind — but Big Fungus felt like an egregious example of playing the hits and evoking Big Television Moments without adding anything of substance.
We recognize Big Fungus’ appearance and the way it fights from the game, and that it’s supposed to be a big deal from the music cues and just due to the sheer scale of him. But the show isn’t interested in doing much else with it. He shows up, looks weird and out of place, and then is done. It’s not enough to just point at 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.