review

Fallout TV series: An uneven but largely compelling adaption of a huge video game

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Fallout is based on the popular video game.
Fallout is based on the popular video game. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

No matter how you slice it, Fallout was always going to be an ambitious streaming series.

It’s not just that video games are notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen, or that gamers are vociferous and protective of “their” favourites. It’s also that Fallout is a complex and expansive game whose backdrop of a nuclear wasteland plays a bit differently now than when the first version of the game was released in 1997.

An eight-episode first season lands this week, hailing from husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the team behind the TV remake of Westworld. That series was also a lavish and complicated sci-fi universe with myriad characters and subplots.

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Like Westworld, Fallout can also boast intricate world-building and a compelling hook that motivates all of its players into action. The pacing wavers and some of the performances are shakier than others, but for the most part, Fallout does enough to sustain curiosity.

Fallout is based on the popular video game.
Fallout is released on Amazon Prime Video on April 11. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Set in an alternate version of a world, a nuclear war seemingly wipes out the Earth’s population, except for those lucky enough to have escaped into bunkers built by a company named VaultTec.

Two centuries later, the citizens of these vaults are now several generations descended from the original inhabitants, and they live cheerful, regimented lives all geared towards the purpose of eventually repopulating the planet.

Their technology and cultural touchpoints have halted at the moment of the apocalypse, a retrofuturistic version of 1950s America. And, the series is soundtracked to vintage classics the likes of Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”, The Ink Spots’ “We’ll Meet Again” and Nat King Cole’s “I Don’t Want to See Tomorrow”. Westworld and Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi composed the score.

From where the story starts, the radiation is expected to be within acceptable levels within a couple more generations. One of these “vault dwellers” is Lucy (Ella Purnell), whose father Hank (Kyle McLachlan) is the overseer of Vault 33, located somewhere beneath the southern Californian desert.

Fallout is based on the popular video game.
The Maximus storyline is less compelling than the others. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

When Hank is kidnapped by surface raiders, Lucy emerges to the above-world in a rescue mission, and everything she knows – the “golden rule” of do onto others — is challenged because on the surface, there are no rules, only survival.

The series is built around three main characters and in addition to Lucy is mutant The Ghoul (Walton Goggins), a bounty hunter whose history tracks back centuries to before the bombs, when his human self was an actor on a TV series. There’s also Maximus (Aaron Moten), a foot soldier in the Brotherhood of Steel, a militant organisation who collects and hoards technology.

All three are in pursuit of an object taken by a renegade scientist (Michael Emerson) which sometimes allies them and sometimes makes them enemies. There’s also an intriguing subplot involving subterfuge and secrets in the vault world.

Fallout is based on the popular video game.
That’s Walton Goggins under that mutant make-up. Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The Fallout world resembles many post-apocalyptic wastelands — it’s dry, dusty and grim — but this one also has the added danger of mutant creatures. You know how everyone jokes that cockroaches would survive a nuclear blast? They did that — and got so much bigger. Gross.

The first episode does the hefty lifting in scene-setting and it does drag at over an hour but the bulk of the episodes come in after 50 minutes, and is surprisingly episodic in that it’s structured around one main story beat. It feels like television – expensive TV to be sure, but still TV.

Not every character, such as Maximus, or subplot is as compelling as Lucy’s, whose peppy manner and idealistic worldview are shed as she struggles to adapt. But there’s an inner strength in that character, and in Purnell’s performance, which makes her easy to invest in.

Whether you have the bandwidth for another post-apocalyptic, nuclear winter series when, in your more paranoid moments, you might feel as if we’re closer to the real thing than when the world emerged from the fearful clutches of the Cold War, Fallout isn’t a bear hug. It may be funny and playful at times, but it’s still violent and brutal.

Not everything in Fallout works, and it can be a little needlessly coy and slow in showing you some of its cards, but on balance, there’s enough here to keep coming back for.

Fallout is on Amazon Prime Video from April 11

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