Fallout Review: Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

Fallout Review: Better Than It Has Any Right To Be

Prime Video’s Fallout TV show is honestly better than it has any right to be.

I truly expected not to like it. I thought for sure, here is a property that will be easy to fumble. Though it makes some missteps — some odd tonal lurches and a sense of humour that, between cornball zingers and black comedy, can never seem to pick a lane — it is, for the most part, an interesting adaptation of a series of games known for putting isolation at their heart. The show isn’t really as interested in that. Connection is the blood in its veins.

The TV show is, in many ways, the antithesis of Bethesda’s RPGs. It isn’t interested in indulging American jingoism the way the games are, poking at the edges of blind patriotism whenever an opportunity presents itself. In this way, perhaps it has more in common with the original Interplay games.

The show follows a young vault dweller from Los Angeles’ Vault 33, Lucy MacLean. When a horrific incident within her once peaceful vault drives her into the Wasteland for the first time, she is forced to reckon with the world she was raised to believe existed and the one she finds beyond the vault door. Along the way, she meets a number of characters that become, for want of a better word, her party. She meets The Ghoul, a hard-talking bounty hunter played by Walton Goggins, and Maximus, a member of the Brotherhood of Steel whose heart and soul are twisted by their bizarre doctrine. In the same way that electrons swirl around an atom, these three characters are caught in the orbit of a sought-after MacGuffin. They all want it for different reasons, and it becomes the thing that binds them.

Their performances are extremely strong. Goggins, in particular, seems to relish getting to play his patented drawling misanthrope with a secret, fuzzy heart. Watching Ella Purnell’s performance as Lucy is not unlike watching clay harden in the most firey kiln imaginable. She’s got a fine line to walk with Lucy, a woman who is battling to hold onto her humanity even as the Wasteland tries to rob her of it. She’s really quite fantastic. Aaron Moten’s Maximus is a character I found myself weirdly attached to, despite the fact that the frequently made me apoplectic with rage. Maximus is a direct product of Wasteland trauma. He joins the Brotherhood of Steel after being saved by one of its armoured Knights as a child. Maximus is a ruthless, avaricious, ambitious little berk who, when given a taste of power, lets it go straight to his head. Moten’s performance is to be commended because he had me frequently shouting at my television.

A wild mystery surrounds Lucy on all sides and connects her to her compatriots in ways she could never have anticipated. Indeed, the way Fallout threads its narrative needle, weaving the characters stories together before pulling them apart and bringing them together again, gives the proceedings a sense of heightened stakes. With each new piece of the Wasteland puzzle that falls into place, that wick only glows brighter.

It’s also relatively short and sweet. Like Netflix’s recent 3 Body Problem, Fallout clocks in at just eight episodes. Barring the pilot, which is an hour-and-ten-minutes, each episode runs for a full hour and packs an awful lot into each runtime. It’s also not a show that, broadly, looks cheap. Indeed, its CGI effects are frequently eye-popping. Its sets and costume design are really wonderful and there’s been clear thought put into what it would be like to wear those Vault Dweller jammies day-in and day-out. Special shoutout to Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, whose orchestral soundtrack provides a perfect, understated compliment around all the licensed music.

There will be fans that want to know if the show contains easter eggs. It does. Plenty of them. But I also think, with one or two notably egregious exceptions, Fallout manages to sneak these nods in without them pulling you out of the show. It implements things like the game’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat system or V.A.T.S. in ways that you can spot but never calls firm attention to them. It even has a little commentary on the games to add: “Yeah, well, the Wasteland has its own golden rule,” a character protests in Episode 3. “Thou shalt get sidetracked by bullshit every god damned time.” A greater Bethesda RPG truism I’ve never heard.

It isn’t all there though — for instance, the show doesn’t start with the franchise’s iconic “War, war never changes.” This line appears to have been dropped by Bethesda in recent years, which I think is a real shame.

I also think there will be interesting arguments to come out the oblique politics of Fallout. The world the show exists in requires power to survive in. Strong, decisive leadership wins out, as does a willingness to shoot first and ask questions later. Conservatives and small-L liberals will almost certainly see themselves in scenes where hapless Vault Dwellers are unable to find effective solutions to their problems, consistently rebuking the only ‘good guy with a gun’ among them. The show seems to venerate that type of person. It’s going to lead to discourse on social media, and it could be a very long couple of weeks because of it.

That’s to say nothing of the brutal path the show has its female protagonist walk. Lucy’s entire arc is about taking her from doe-eyed ingenue to ruthless, dead-eyed killing machine. The show, sometimes gleefully, rips her humanity away from her in an effort to see what she’s made of. It makes sense in the context of the world the show inhabits but your personal mileage may vary.

It’s also a fairly violent show. In the early episodes, it seems to shy away from the ultraviolence of the games more than in later ones. When the show does want to get violent, it does so quite cheerfully. If you’re the sort of person that doesn’t get along with gore, you might want to watch through your fingers. If you’re fine with a bit of gibbage, you’ll be well served.

I mentioned at the top of this review that Fallout struggles to decide what kind of jokes it wants to throw in. I honestly think it should have just stuck to black comedy, because that’s always been the games’ bread and butter. However, it attempts to throw in some truly boneheaded, Marvel-esque “Well that happened” jokes and every last one of them falls flat. These jokes feel like studio notes, and I wish they weren’t there, undercutting every scene they appear in. Other attempts at physical comedy feel incredibly weird and vulgar — you’ll know the scene I’m talking about when you see it. It comes out of nowhere, and I’d be curious to know who it gets a laugh from. The jokes that hit, really hit and they’re often throwaway moments that acknowledge the absurdity of a world that allows a company like Vault-Tec to thrive. I wish it had focused on these jokes more. Throwing comedy darts at the board wasn’t the play.

I’ve done a bit of grumbling here but, all things considered, I think Fallout came together much better than we could have hoped for. I am no superfan — I’ve grown to dislike Fallout 4 more and more as the years have worn on. After reviewing it at launch, you’ll never catch me playing Fallout 76 again as long as I live. But I see what the show is trying to do, and I applaud the effort. It’s trying to replicate the vibe of a franchise that, whether at Interplay or Bethesda, has always captured the imagination. That it’s an honest success is all the more surprising.

Fallout is streaming on Prime Video from April 11 in Australia.

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