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14th April 2024

Fallout review: Westworld meets The Last of Us, but weaker

The Amazon TV show—a live-action video game adaptation from the makers of Westworld—is the right mix of goofy and self-serious but is found lacking in crucial departments.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Ella Purnell in Fallout TV show
Ella Purnell as Lucy MacLean in Fallout // Photo: JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

For about a decade and a half, Todd Howard—who has led direction on every major Bethesda video game since 2008, including the award-winning action role-playing titles Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—resisted the idea of a Fallout television adaptation. Howard rejected multiple pitches as none of them were “quite clicking” for him. But that changed when Jonathan Nolan—creator of the sci-fi series Westworld, co-writer of The Dark Knight, and a self-professed fan of the Fallout games—rang him up. Howard was impressed: “It was very clear that he had played the games and loved them and had a vision for what it could be on the screen.” The deal was announced in 2020, and a little less than four years later, Fallout the TV show has arrived on Amazon Prime Video.

As with Westworld, Fallout mixes elements of the Western and science fiction genres. More than half of the Amazon series takes place in a post-apocalyptic Southern California wasteland. And just as Westworld had a sadistic cowboy haunting everyone’s lives, so too does Fallout in a grisly bounty hunter with half his nose blown off. (The two also share intriguing backstories and a very different past life.) The Amazon TV show differentiates itself, aesthetically, with the retro-futuristic atompunk vibe that the games are known for. While the world of Fallout has advanced technologies we’ve never seen, they are crafted and designed out of styles and materials that you would associate with the post-World War II era. On top of that, it features cannibalism and strange mutated axolotls.

In keeping with the retro atompunk vibe, even though its society technically stopped in the latter half of the 21st century, all the needle drops are from an era gone by. There’s no music from beyond the 1950s in the Amazon TV show.

Fallout is both goofy and self-serious

Given all that, Fallout can be quite ugly and self-serious—as it is for long stretches across eight hourlong episodes—but it’s got a penchant for the goofy and eccentric, too. There’s a lot of blood, gore, and violence. Limbs are blown off, heads are chopped off, and dogs munch on giant roaches. On the flip side, the series balances it out by sewing replacement fingers (convenient) and scoring its violence at times to old-timey songs. Additionally, we have funny robots that won’t shut up, action movie tropes flipped on their head, and two hammered dudes running an organ-harvesting clinic.

But I’m not sure Fallout offers enough—narratively and otherwise. Parts of it are rather humdrum. I saw all eight episodes across four days and am already struggling to recall memorable scenes from each episode. It’s watchable but it gave me the distinct feeling that I was merely scanning through the events to get to the next episode and never fully engaged in the moment. It felt like filler. The finale, where things come together and a lot of revelations occur, is quite strong. But the path leading to it isn’t always as fun or exciting.

It’s nowhere near the level of fellow post-apocalyptic video game adaptation, The Last of Us. Sure, the two TV shows are very different, in tone, setting, or characters. (The only common element is the worldview that it’s dangerous to be out there.) But The Last of Us was better in virtually every department—it had stronger writing, acting, and a sense of purpose.

Kyle MacLachlan in Fallout TV show
Kyle MacLachlan as Hank MacLean in Fallout // Photo: JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

A fish out of post-apocalyptic water

Set two hundred and nineteen years after a cataclysmic nuclear war in the late 21st century, the first season of Fallout primarily follows four characters. (Timeline-wise, that puts the TV show around Fallout 3 and Fallout 4—both also take place two centuries after the bombs dropped, except the games were set in Washington D.C. and Boston, respectively. Yes, the Amazon series is set in the same continuity. At the tail end of the 23rd century, this is the farthest we’ve been in the Fallout timeline.)

There’s Lucy (Ella Purnell) and Norm MacLean (Moises Arias), siblings who reside in Vault 33, one of the many underground bunkers across the US designed to save elite Americans and their friends in the event of an atomic catastrophe. Lucy is at her happiest when we meet her but after an unfortunate turn of events, she sets out into the wasteland in search of their father Hank (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s also the Overseer of Vault 33. It’s a fish-out-of-water story. Here is a woman who has spent her entire life sequestered, and now she’s stepping out into the “real” world—a world that is nothing like what she knows. Norm decides to stay back and begins to piece together the mystery of interconnected Vaults 31, 32, and 33.

Knights and ghouls

In the wasteland above, we meet Maximus (Aaron Moten), a trainee member of the Brotherhood of Steel, a secretive cult-like group that collects pre-war technology to keep it out of everyone else’s hands. Well, officially anyway. Maximus is assigned as a squire—that means lugging around necessary tools and bits—to serve one of the Knights of the Brotherhood, who wield heavy exoskeleton Power Armor (akin to Iron Man) to showcase their might. Maximus’ childhood has The Mandalorian vibes to it. He lost everything in a war and was taken into the Brotherhood, which is why he’s done everything for it since. Maximus is the weakest character of the lot, with his motivations and demeanour feeling half-baked and half-thought-out.

Aaron Moten in Fallout TV show
Power Armor and Aaron Moten as Maximus in Fallout // Photo: JoJo Whilden/Prime Video

That leaves The Ghoul / Cooper Howard (Walton Goggins). Pre-apocalypse, he was once a famous Hollywood actor. After the bombs dropped, Howard turned into a mutant because of prolonged exposure to radiation. That has given him an insanely long lifespan but with decaying skin and a nose chopped in half. And since he’s one of the few who knew the world before things went sideways, Howard is the most interesting of our four main Fallout characters. Sure, he’s the device through which the Amazon series conveys most of its background lore but it’s also fascinating to see such two different versions of the same character across timelines. How does a soft-spoken Hollywood actor end up roaming the wasteland as a flesh-eating bounty hunter?

In Fallout, a starker version of our world

As Fallout progresses, the worlds of Lucy, Maximus and The Ghoul soon collide. The common thread ends up being Dr. Wilzig (Michael Emerson) and his experimental German Shepherd dog CX404. There’s ample room for conflict. The Ghoul has few morals or ethics if any, while Lucy believes in “The Golden Rule”—treat others as you would like others to treat you. Lucy is also derided for being a vault dweller as they are considered snobby, naïve, and upper class. After all, as someone notes, the vaults were a place for the rich folks to hide in while the rest of the world burned. As the season goes on, Lucy learns how the have-nots eked out a living and survived without their help. You can easily draw parallels with the world today—except it’s a starker version.

Along the way, Fallout offers surface-level commentary on capitalism and communism (how corporations are always in it for themselves and willing to go the extra mile) and cults and religion (and how they thrive in the darkness). The Amazon TV show is also very gun-centric though that’s likely a commentary on the state of America. What irked me a lot more is how Fallout’s Southern California seems infinitesimally small. The characters keep running into each other in new locales without travelling great distances. It feels too convenient and inorganic, and in turn, the post-apocalyptic world doesn’t feel sparse enough. The Last of Us, which traversed multiple US states in its first season, made you feel those distances through time and changing seasons.

Walton Goggins in Fallout TV show
Walton Goggins as The Ghoul in Fallout // Photo: Prime Video

The wasteland is an opportunity in Fallout

To this day, the US remains the only country that has used atomic bombs on another country. Yet, the fear of going through the same thing has been felt through decades of filmmaking in Hollywood. Jonathan, like his brother Christopher Nolan who explored the fear of nuclear annihilation in last year’s Oscar-winning Oppenheimer, is trading off the other side of that coin in distinctly different ways. (He has directed the first three episodes—he is also an executive producer on the Amazon TV show, alongside his partner and Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy—but he’s more like an overseer. The showrunning duties are with creators Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner.)

In Fallout, the end of the world is partly a satire of society, an analogy for Big Business, and an opportunity to see humanity at its most primal. “I hate it up here,” the born-in-a-bubble and frustrated Lucy says at one point in the Amazon TV show. She has good reason to—the universe of Fallout is like ours but stripped of any decency. It’s as the Joker says in The Dark Knight, a line penned by the Nolans: “Their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. When the chips are down, these civilised people, they’ll eat each other.”

That’s what Fallout explores—figuratively and literally. But even as it lands the right mix of tone and a well-realised world, it’s unfortunately lacking in pacing, storytelling, and fully realised characters. Nolan and Joy got off to a stronger start with Westworld, but the HBO series never got to its end, being too weird, wobbly, complex and intricate for its own good. Hopefully, Fallout can chart a different path.

All eight episodes of Fallout season 1 released on April 10 in the Americas and April 11 elsewhere on Amazon Prime Video.

Akhil Arora

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