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Amazon’s Fallout TV Series Is Big, Loud, And Messy – Review

Atom bomb baby little atom bomb

Fallout, the decades-spanning post-apocalyptic roleplaying franchise, has been filtered so many times as to be borderline unrecognisable to its humble origins. This is, unsurprisingly, a point of contention among fans of the series– its late 90s isometric gameplay and dark humour being all but scrapped over the years in favour of its current custodian Bethesda Softworks more action-heavy gunplay and saccharin reliance on iconography and aesthetics.

The fundamentals, though, remain just as solid. A retrofuturism-soaked critique of American exceptionalism in a world where the bombs dropped sometime after the West achieved a kind of utopian social status. Among the ashes, a megacorporation’s fallout shelters, Vaults, run cruel and unusual experiments on the remaining surviving humans below ground while the surface is contorted into a Mad Max-style wasteland of sex, guns, and drugs. Across iterations, these core building blocks have been endlessly strained through differing lenses producing a variety of interpretations of the series’ core ideas and visual language.

Fallout (2024), then, is filtered by way of a collaborative effort between Amazon MGM Studios, Bethesda, and the creative prowess of Westworld duo Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. It’s a snappy adaptation, drinking deep of Bethesda’s cleanly codified and marketable Fallout worlds while taking its own liberties where it can. There’s a boundless excitement to much of it, like a kid turned loose at a carnival for the first time, with all the sugar rushes and chaos you’d imagine following. It’s bright, it’s loud, it’s exhausting.  

In an odd echo of the franchise’s disparate tonal issues, Fallout finds itself sporadically switching identities. Split across three perspectives, we follow the fallout of Lucy MacLean’s (Ella Purnell) idyllic Vault lifestyle when events force her to the surface to face some hard truths about herself and the world around her. Along the way we meet up with Brotherhood of Steel lacky Maximus (Aaron Clifton Moten) and irradiated bounty hunter, the Ghoul (Walter Goggins). As these three major players come in and out of each other’s stories, we learn of the wasteland’s violent power structures, the machinations of the infamous raider Moldaver (Sarita Choudhury), and get a slow burn look at the state of the world leading to the bombs finally dropping.

Across the eight-episode run of Fallout, it’s difficult to gauge exactly what the goal was. The easiest, and weakest, case you could make is that this is For the Fans, a flashy adaptation designed to appeal to the 25-odd million people who played Fallout 4. The show is certainly an abundance of cues and nods to references from the video games, both subtly cute and egregiously cloying. Did you want to know the origins of the iconic Vault-Tec thumbs up? Sure you do, kiddo. But despite the popularity of the games and the wealth of imagery and plot to pull from, Fallout would still need to work as a standalone streaming series and its here that things get particularly ghoulish.

Fallout is less of an overarching story so much as a string of mood pieces and loosely connected events. I am a staunch defender of Joy and Nolan’s work on Westworld, a show that managed to deftly weave together evocative Old West imagery with moving, thoughtful science-fiction. Even that series’ later seasons, criminally overlooked and underappreciated for their ambitious (if messy) execution, attempted to do something with the show’s by then discordant elements. Fallout displays none of this pedigree, opting for a repetitive, numbing ‘whacky’ antics, half-baked character and plot work, and sweeping, brown vistas set to old timey tunes.

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The show’s initial premise, and early episodes, set up the season for some clean homeruns. What happens when the naïve Vault dweller collides with the cruel world above? How does a man raised in a devout institution react to that same world giving him the chance to be free? What does a Ghoul who’s lost it all centuries ago even care about anymore? These aren’t groundbreaking concepts, but they are at least fundamentals on which to build a more interesting story, something Fallout seems entirely uninterested in beyond the occasional blip of life.

Bethesda has made a concerted effort to showcase what life was like in this ostensibly idealised American society before the bombs fell, shifting the ideological goalposts of the series in the process. It’s a great impulse, and one that franchise figurehead Todd Howard has said he explicitly wanted to explore through this adaptation, especially given its uneven results when done via Bethesda’s games. In Fallout, it yields the series’ best performance in Frances Turner’s Barb, a Vault-Tec executive trying to navigate the ethical dilemmas of a capitalist state during a world war. In what is easily the season’s highest moment, Barb comes undone about the pressures of Fallout’s picturesque Americana dream, tapping into the subtextual racial politics of the franchise’s iconography, and establishing the show’s interest in being more than just franchise fast food.

It’s also entirely undone by the finale, a truly baffling reworking of the series’ lore in a way that doesn’t bother me because it’s different, but just because it’s remarkably silly. We all owe Resident Evil: The Final Chapter an apology, I just can’t explain why because of the spoiler embargo. It’s a carelessness that permeates almost all the storytelling in Fallout, entire character arcs and threads woefully underutilised or poorly explained as it barrels toward the next ill-timed joke or self-serious sombre jukebox drop. It’s darkly funny to have spent years vouching for the validity of video game writing just to have our most expensive adaptations riddled with cliches and tropes.

Outside of Turner’s performance, Moten’s Maximus fills the screen with raw, nervous energy at every given opportunity. His unique blend of fresh-faced masculinity and earnest cowardice makes for a compelling kind of hero. He meets his match in Purnell’s Lucy, a powerhouse of drive, competence, and sexuality, Purnell bringing a precocious energy to an often uneven character arc. Goggins will undoubtedly be a series highlight for many, both of his performances making a mark though his turn as the Ghoul nowhere near as interesting as Cooper Howard during the pre-war timeline. I’d also be remiss to not give flowers to Choudhury’s Moldaver, a character the show has approximately zero idea what to do with but is elevated by Choudhury’s sheer force of will and warmth.

These performances are the show’s saving grace, bobbing and weaving through a series that is ultimately aloof about its potential emotional resonance or social critique. Even the action set pieces feel anaemic, lacking momentum or weight, which it tries to disguise through excessive gore the show can’t decide between presenting as funny or cool. It largely looks decent, the pristine halls of the Vaults marking some great set design, but the wasteland never quite nails down a sense of place or coherent visual language.

I struggle to call Fallout a particularly bad show, it’s too ill-defined and buttery to ever truly catch as it goes down (finale aside), but neither is it all that good, as either adaption or standalone text. The vibrant sets and catchy tunes do the vibe’s legwork well enough, and its mawkish gestures to parenthood and romance are matched only by its borderline complete disinterest in challenging or even coherent commentary. Run-of-the-mill sins in the streaming age, maybe, but a far cry from the opening brilliance of Westworld and all made just a little harsher by the dimming light of Fallout’s once radiant energy.

Episodes supplied by production company

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Amazon’s Fallout TV Series Is Big, Loud, And Messy – Review
Wasted land
Fallout's live-action adaptation adds some fun wrinkles to the franchise but gets bogged down in iconography and messy overarching writing
The Good
Solid cast performances
Interesting new lore ideas
Great set design
The Bad
Messy overarching story
Overreliance on iconography
Action directing is a bit flat
6.5
HAS A CRACK

Amazon’s Fallout TV Series Is Big, Loud, And Messy – Review
Wasted land
Fallout’s live-action adaptation adds some fun wrinkles to the franchise but gets bogged down in iconography and messy overarching writing
The Good
Solid cast performances
Interesting new lore ideas
Great set design
The Bad
Messy overarching story
Overreliance on iconography
Action directing is a bit flat
6.5
HAS A CRACK
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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