(Yes, The Last of Us isn't a film, but rather it's a game, but I didn't want to make a whole new tag. Massive spoilers herein, along with a lot of triggery stuff.)
The Last of Us is a video game that Husband and I have been playing recently; it's by the same company which makes the Uncharted series and with roughly the same controls. (Which I consider a plus; the Easy mode actually is easy for me, and the controls are intuitive to my hands and make you feel like you're in training for harder levels. Why more games can't get this right is beyond me.) In the game, you control a smuggler named Joel who must escort a young girl named Ellie across a ruined America in order to deliver her to an underground-and-possibly-terrorist organization known as "the Fireflies" so that their scientists can try to medically engineer a "cure" to the zombie apocalypse based on studying Ellie who happens to be mysteriously immune to the plague.
Oh, did I mention there's a zombie apocalypse? There's a zombie apocalypse. But they're not really zombies in the traditional sense; the "infected" are infected with a fungus that grows all over the human brain and heightens aggression. Eventually the fungus manifests externally, first extruding from the head and finally covering the entire body. [Content Note: Visually gruesome.] The virus can be transmitted by bite (as with traditional zombies) or via air-borne spore contagion which manifests in levels where Joel has to wear a gas mask to filter the air.
Only about 30% of the game is killing zombies, though. Roughly 70% of your other enemies are non-infected humans: in the first quarter of the game, smugglers and soldiers who are hell-bent on your death; and in the rest of the game, bandits who are dead-set on killing Joel and Ellie to a single-minded degree that can only be explained by them being bored out of their gourd or so affected by the 20+ years of the breakdown of human society that they've lost all concept of right and wrong. The bandits you meet are almost essentially Reavers from another Firefly franchise; Zoe's famous quote -- "If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order." -- pretty much captures these bandits perfectly.
Whether this characterization of the bandits is meant to make the player feel better about mowing them down or whether this is just a continuation of themes seen in previous stories like 28 Days Later or The Road is debatable: my money, for the record, is on "both". There's a popular cultural belief that a zombie apocalypse would turn 90% of the survivors into murdering rapists, and while I personally disagree (and give humanity more credit than that), I also recognize that this isn't something new the developers dreamed up purely in order to absolve the player of responsibility. But we're getting bogged down in the backstory, so I'll just shortly say that pretty much every person you kill in this game "shot first", so to speak.
Here's where we get to the end-game spoilers. Joel delivers Ellie to the Fireflies but they are both wounded in the process. He wakes to be told, by the girl's adoptive mother (Marlene) who first sent Joel on this job, that the Fireflies were able to patch Ellie's wounds up, have confirmed that she really is immune, and that Joel cannot see her because Ellie is being prepped for surgery. The penny drops that Ellie's fungal-brain-infection is a special mutation and that the scientists think that if they harvest her mutated-brain-fungus then they can create a vaccine to prevent more people from becoming infected. The problem is that they can only harvest the fungus by killing Ellie.
Joel basically explains to them that he isn't going to allow that to happen before killing his way to the operating table, hoisting Ellie in his arms, running for the exit, killing Marlene (who represents both a short-term threat in that she's holding a gun and a long-term threat in that she is an almost religious extremist in her decision to kill Ellie and she knows where they're going for safety on account of being an ex-girlfriend of Joel's brother Tommy), and driving off to safety with Ellie.
Ellie wakes up, asks what happened (and shows absolutely no understanding of what the Fireflies planned to do to her; more on that later), and then accompanies Joel back to his brother's safe haven they previously passed through in the game. The final scene shows Ellie confessing to feeling suicidal from Survivor's Guilt -- her friends have died, but she still lives, and could she somehow offer her life to save others, do you think? -- and Joel lying to her about the fate of the now-dead Fireflies in order to convince her to live her life without guilt.
Honestly, I thought this was all pretty satisfactory, but I had already seen online roughly eleventy billion people talking about how Joel is a bad guy and a secret villain and that what he did, i.e. saving Ellie at the end, was wrong. Which quite frankly puzzles me, and now I'm going to talk about why.
I get that this setup was supposed to be a classic "would you kill one to save thousands" question. The problem is that it just doesn't work as one for me. Firstly, I'm unconvinced that this "cure" would save anyone. Because, first of all, it's not a "cure". The Fireflies do not, to my understanding (there are audiologs all over the facility and I've listened to them several times now), believe the "cure" they develop will save the already-Infected. What they do think it will do is prevent not-infected people from becoming infected if they get bitten. That's a vaccine, not a cure. (To her credit, Marlene does refer to it as a vaccine several times; it's just that she seems to think that word is interchangeable with the word "cure".)
But let's say they kill Ellie and make a vaccine. Let's also say that they somehow manage to make hundreds or thousands or millions of applications of the vaccine, one for every surviving human on earth. Let's also say that somehow they manage to ship those vaccines everywhere, despite the fact that it's been demonstrated throughout the video game that cross-country travel has almost a 100% mortality rate in this game. Let's say all that goes off without a hitch and they vaccinate everyone. How many lives are saved?
I'm serious. The thing is, of the fully one-hundred-thousand dead bodies in this game, maybe four of them are/were killed by a bitten infection or an air-borne spore infection. 99.9% of the rest of the dead people are/were killed by bandits or eaten by zombies. Not "bitten", but "eaten" so much that they bleed out and die. Meanwhile, almost every city you pass through appears to be pretty thoroughly barricaded against the zombies and seems instead to be emptied out by murderous bandits or murderous soldiers or murderous Fireflies. It's entirely unclear to me that this vaccine is going to save anyone, given that the current causes of death in this universe are, right now, things other than infection. Maybe a vaccine would have helped at the start of the outbreak, but it's unclear to me how it would help now.
Second, there is no concept that this vaccine will be thoroughly tested. If I understand Marlene and the audio logs entirely, the plan isn't to "vaccinate" people in the normal way of building up immunities to something, but instead to literally infect people with the mutated-version of the brain fungus that Ellie has. *record scratch* Ellie has been infected for about a year, which is hinted in-game at being (possibly significantly) less time than it takes for infected humans to start manifesting fungus growing out of their ears and noses and eyes and heads. So while Ellie still has higher brain functions and isn't aggressive, there's no reason to believe that the mutated version of her brain fungus isn't still going to spread throughout her body like the normal version does. What I am saying is, before the Fireflies start vaccinating the human populace (possibly against their will because the Fireflies aren't big on bodily autonomy and consent) it would be good to know what the long-term affects of this vaccine are.
Thirdly, I simply do not buy that killing Ellie is the only way. This is always the Achilles heel of the "kill one to save many" problem: in addition to proving that the act would "save many", you also have to prove that it's really necessary to "kill one".
Let me tell you a story that is only tangentially related to above, but which I want to tell anyway. When I was a psychology major, we were taught the classic Heinz Dilemma that is used to illustrate Kohlberg's stages of moral development. The dilemma is that Heinz's wife is sick and needs an existing drug in order to recover. Heinz can't scrape together the exorbitant cost for the drug and the chemist won't haggle down or place Heinz on a payment plan. The question is: Is Heinz morally wrong to steal the drug? There is no right or wrong answer; the "stages of moral development" refer to how developing children argue their case either way.
What follows is how I recall my own psychology professor telling this story, and there may be some inaccuracies: A lady scientist, Carol Gilligan, noted that Kohlberg initially only used male participants in his interviews. She then noted that when mixed-gender groups of children were given the Heinz Dilemma to consider, the interviewers frequently scored girl children lower than they scored boy children. These lower scores seemed to indicate that these girls were less developed than boys when it came to logic and moral reasoning.
Gilligan set out to observe an interview with a boy and then with a girl and documented the different responses. What she found was that the girl children on average were not demonstrating a failure of logic, but rather that many of them rejected the Heinz Dilemma as artificially constrained, demanding a legal action (stealing) to the exclusion of consideration of all other actions. Girl subjects asked why Heinz's family wouldn't help, or why Heinz couldn't get financial aid from someone other than the chemist, or why social pressure couldn't be brought to bear against the chemist, or a million other things. Gilligan realized that the interviewers were getting frustrated and were railroading the girls onto the tightly-allowed answers of the hypothetical -- "Stealing! Yes or no! Why?" -- and when the girls clammed up, the interviewers marked them down with a lower stage of moral development. Gilligan notes:
In contrast, Amy's response to the dilemma conveys a very different impression, an image of development stunted by a failure of logic, an inability to think for herself. Asked if Heinz should steal the drug, she replies in a way that seems evasive and unsure:
Well, I don't think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn't steal the drug -- but his wife shouldn't die either.
Asked why he should not steal the drug, she considers neither property nor law but rather the effect that theft could have on the relationship between Heinz and his wife:
If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn't get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money.
Seeing in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time, Amy envisions the wife's continuing need for her husband and the husband's continuing concern for his wife and seeks to respond to the druggist's need in a way that would sustain rather than sever connection. Just as she ties the wife's survival to the preservation of relationships, so she considers the value of the wife's life in a context of relationships, saying that it would be wrong to let her die because, "if she died, it hurts a lot of people and it hurts her." Since Amy's moral judgment is grounded in the belief that, "if somebody has something that would keep somebody alive, then it's not right not to give it to them," she considers the problem in the dilemma to arise not from the druggist's assertion of rights but from his failure of response.
As the interviewer proceeds with the series of questions that follow from Kohlberg's construction of the dilemma, Amy's answers remain essentially unchanged, the various probes serving neither to elucidate nor to modify her initial response. [...] Failing to see the dilemma as a self-contained problem in moral logic, she does not discern the internal structure of its resolution; as she constructs the problem differently herself, Kohlberg's conception completely evades her. Instead, seeing a world comprised of relationships rather than of people standing alone, a world that coheres through human connection rather than through systems of rules, she finds the puzzle in the dilemma to lie in the failure of the druggist to respond to the wife.
[...] Just as Jake is confident the judge would agree that stealing is the right thing for Heinz to do, so Amy is confident that, "if Heinz and the druggest had talked it out long enough, they could reach something besides stealing." As he considers the law to "have mistakes," so she sees this drama as a mistake, believing that "the world should just share things more and then people wouldn't have to steal." Both children thus recognize the need for agreement but see it as mediated in different ways — he impersonally through systems of logic and law, she personally through communication in relationship. Just as he relies on the conventions of logic to deduce the solution to this dilemma, assuming these conventions to be shared, so she relies on a process of communication, assuming connection and believing that her voice will be heard.
[...] Although the frustration of the interviewer with Amy is apparent in the repetition of questions and its ultimate circularity, the problem of interpretation is focused by the assessment of her response. When considered in the light of Kohlberg's definition of the stages and sequence of moral development, her moral judgments appear to be a full stage lower in maturity than those of the boy. Scored as a mixture of stages two and three, her responses seem to reveal a feeling of powerlessness in the world, an inability to think systematically about the concepts of morality or law, a reluctance to challenge authority or to examine the logic of received moral truths, a failure even to conceive of acting directly to save a life or to consider that such action, if taken, could possibly have an effect.
[...] But the different logic of Amy's response calls attention to the interpretation of the interview itself. Conceived as an interrogation, it appears instead as a dialogue, which takes on moral dimensions of its own, pertaining to the interviewer's uses of power and to the manifestations of respect. With the shift in the conception of the interview, it immediately becomes clear that the interviewer's problem in understanding Amy's response stems from the fact that Amy is answering a different question from the one the interviewer thought had been posed. Amy is considering not
whether Heinz should act in this situation ("should Heinz steal the drug?") but rather how Heinz should act in response to his awareness of his wife's need ("Should Heinz steal the drug?"). The interviewer takes the mode of action for granted, presuming it to be a matter of fact; Amy assumes the necessity for action and considers what form it should take. In the interviewer's failure to imagine a response not dreamt of in Kohlberg's moral philosophy lies the failure to hear Amy's question and to see the logic in her response, to discern that what appears, from one perspective, to be an evasion of the dilemma signifies in other terms a recognition of the problem and a search for a more adequate solution.
Thus in Heinz's dilemma these two children see two very different moral problems — Jake a conflict between life and property that can be resolved by logical deduction, Amy a fracture of human relationship that must be mended with its own thread.
I mention all that because it's a good story rarely told (the current Wikipedia article on criticisms of Kohlberg is, quite frankly, shite) and because it ties in with my refusal to accept the premise that (a) Joel is condemning all of humanity by saving Ellie or (b) that the way the Fireflies are going about this vaccine is the only way to develop one. Indeed, in the Fireflies' full-pelt rush to carve Ellie up as quickly as possible rather than studying the long-term affects of the fungus on her or work out a non-lethal way to collect samples from her (maybe via gradual, less-invasive surgeries over time, allowing the fungus to grow back each time), I see dangerous religious extremism and/or dangerous incompetence. Cutting up the goose who lays the golden zombie-vaccination eggs doesn't work well in fairy tales for a reason. (And, seriously, what if the vaccine requires fresh samples from Ellie each time they make a batch? Measure once, cut twice should not be the motto here.)
Fourthly, I cannot get on board with overriding a victim's consent. It's made abundantly clear to me, via Marlene's audiolog that she herself "gave permission" to go ahead with the surgery and by Ellie having no idea what was supposed to happen to her in surgery, that the Fireflies didn't obtain her informed consent. I presume that they were afraid that she would say no or would try to escape, which is something of an irony when she indicates later to Joel that she would die in order to save lives. But "we didn't get her consent because she might have refused it" isn't something that's morally ambiguous for me: killing someone in that way without even a warning is, in my morality book, wrong. Yes, even if it saves All The Puppies or whatever.
Interestingly, I could possibly get on-board with Joel doing a wrong thing when he lies to Ellie at the end to protect her because, again, informed consent. But on the other hand, at that point most of the Fireflies are dead and (depending on whether you accidentally shot the scientists when you burst in on them, like Husband did because every other human in the game was armed and bearing down on you like a particularly angry Angry Bird) there's no reason to assume that the Fireflies at this point even have the necessary talent left in the wake of your escape attempt to try for a vaccine again anyway. And I can kind of see lying so that someone won't live with Survivor's Guilt all their life if there's literally nothing they can do to alleviate or fix it at that point. And especially when Ellie already pretty clearly has a serious case of PTSD from some of the stuff that's been done to her in the last year. So I put Joel's lie in the morally ambiguous bucket, to be honest.
I have even more thoughts, but I think that's enough words for one day. Long story short, I don't do well with "kill one to save many" plots when I demand triplicate proof that every part of that sentence is actually true, and I don't score well on the Heinz Dilemma. Quelle surprise.