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Ella Purnell as Lucy MacLean in Fallout (Image: Amazon Prime)
Ella Purnell as Lucy MacLean in Fallout (Image: Amazon Prime)

Pop CultureApril 17, 2024

Review: Don’t let ‘based on a video game’ put you off Fallout

Ella Purnell as Lucy MacLean in Fallout (Image: Amazon Prime)
Ella Purnell as Lucy MacLean in Fallout (Image: Amazon Prime)

A gaming novice explains why you should watch the latest big video game adaptation to hit our screens.

Gamers, avert your eyes. The extent of my gaming experience is graduating from Sims University in lieu of finishing my master’s degree, and you’re about to read what I thought about the new Amazon Prime adaptation of Fallout. 

Adaptations can be fraught. Fans of something as huge as the incredibly popular roleplaying game series Fallout is based on might be concerned about what is lost or exploited when vast kingdoms of cultural lore are handed over to large studios and different audiences. 

People who haven’t played the game may feel like they don’t know enough to enjoy it or are afraid of being exposed as canonical neophytes if they talk about it. In the case of a game adaptation, some might be put off by a pervasive form of snobbery about the source material.

Despite loving The Last of Us, another recent game adaptation, and being proved wrong multiple times about an equally stupid “based on a comic book” bias, I still carry a bit of that “based on a video game” bias, and so I reluctantly agreed to watch Fallout. Safe spoiler alert: I loved it and think that if you liked Station Eleven, The Boys, WandaVision, Watchmen or The Last of Us, you’ll also love Fallout. Here are five reasons to wave any preconceptions goodbye and dive in.

You don’t need any prior knowledge 

According to the 1,000 searches I’ve done since finishing the show, Fallout acts as both a sequel and prequel to what’s been covered in the games. You don’t need to know any of this to watch it. Steeped in a well-traversed nuclear apocalypse narrative, it’s a quest story set in an alternative America both before and after nuclear bombs go off. The alternate past is a futuristic 1950s. The present, set 200 or so years after the nuclear disaster, is a survivalist wasteland on the surface and a rabbit warren of inhabited vaults for the lucky few beneath it. The protagonist, a naive and sheltered Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) leaves her vault to look for her father, and like an atomic-age Dorothy meets friends and foes along the way. Despite that Wizard of Oz allusion, it’s definitely not a show for kids. It’s dark, grim, violent and…

It’s very funny

Fallout is set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world, and so it pays to discount humour by way of obvious gags. Instead, the show cleverly leverages the dark and nihilistic territory it has to play with. It’s incredible how quickly one of the show’s main characters, The Ghoul (Walton Goggins), goes from being a terrifying example of radiation poisoning, with a cavity where his nose should be, to reminding me of Jim Carrey at his absolute, absurdist best. 

The elaborate underground vaults are soaked in 50s nostalgia. Smiling happy cartoon people on posters cheerfully warn of danger, and the strict adherence to a quaint moral code is offset by unreserved conversations about how procreation must trump “messing about with your cousins”. Writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy worked on Westworld, and while that show lost its sense of humour for a couple of seasons, it had legitimately funny moments. Showrunner Graham Wagner worked on Portlandia, Silicon Valley and The Office. I am reliably informed that the games are full of black humour, and so it seems that has translated to the adaptation.

The violence and terrifying creatures are B-grade horror at its finest

I’m aware this might also put people off, but you need to be OK with the concept of ass jerky to watch Fallout. For fans of camp, pulpy gore, Fallout delivers. On the surface, everyone is ruthlessly trying to survive by any means possible, so it goes without saying that cannibalism features and heads and limbs are blown off with the same kind of “huge hole in your head” flourish you’d get if you were playing the game. One of the show’s most terrifyingly mutated creatures, a giant axolotl-esque thing with a mouth full of fingers for teeth, is also its funniest. Tarantino fans will enjoy the brutal dispatch of one character in a scene straight out of the spaghetti westerns he’s drawn on in films like Django Unchained and Kill Bill.

Walton Goggins as The Ghoul (Image: Amazon Prime)

The cast is great

Goggins recently starred as Baby Billy Freeman in The Righteous Gemstones, a show I think a lot more people need to watch. His incredible mouth more than makes up for his lack of a nose, and his character has enormous range. Goggins seems to revel in swallowing it whole. In the show’s past, he’s Cooper Howard, a Hollywood movie star and loving dad and husband. As The Ghoul, he’s a survivor and a bounty hunter. He’s still processing an extraordinary betrayal and, as one of the show’s more grotesque characters, is set up as an obvious villain. His backstory as Howard and his cowboy swagger as The Ghoul bring humanity and perverse joy to every scene he’s in. Purnell (Yellowjackets) whips MacLean back and forth between sheltered vault dweller and increasingly street/surface-wise. It would be so easy for her to settle in one mode throughout, all doe-eyed and horrified, but Purnell plays her with just enough sly undertone, delivering some of the show’s funniest lines with a watchable combination of earnestness and knowing. 

The world-building is moreish

This show could have easily survived or maybe even benefitted from being released week to week. It would give viewers room to breathe and prevent them from stumbling into spoiler-filled rabbit holes alone as they insatiably hunt out clues. Having said that, it’s the first show in a long time that I’d describe as inherently and even necessarily bingeable. New characters and the worlds they come from have moreish qualities. The vaults and the pre-bomb past are rendered in exquisite detail. Nostalgia plucked from the 50s makes it all very relatable and accessible, and yet it’s all entirely of the Fallout universe. Like WandaVision, there are plenty of referential treats and Easter eggs. You know there’s something being revealed, and no one would blame you if you want to race through each episode to find out what it is. It is definitely rewatchable. 

There’s a serious conceit about human survival at the heart of the show, and it has a lot to say about America, the danger of nostalgia, the constant of war, and the ethics of scientific and technological advancement. Just as the Cold War and nuclear proliferation influenced film and television in the 20th century, Fallout grapples with existential questions that are equally relevant in the 21st. It just happens to be packaged as very watchable entertainment for those who might be gaming ignorant, but enjoy sharp writing and high-concept TV. 

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