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‘Fallout’ review: Video game adaptation is a wild nuclear Western


Early on in one of Fallout‘s many flashbacks to the late 21st century, actor Cooper Howard (Walton Goggins) worries about the ending of a Western movie he’s shooting. Why would his character, a law-abiding sheriff, choose to shoot an outlaw dead instead of just arresting him?

“It’s a new kind of Western,” his director explains.

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Fallout, based on Bethesda’s best-selling video game franchise, takes these words to heart. In the show’s very first scene, a cowboy-suited Cooper desperately rides his horse away from the billowing mushroom clouds engulfing Los Angeles — call it a nuclear Western.

But that’s just the start of the Western influences Fallout wears proudly on its blue-and-yellow sleeves. Over the course of the series — fittingly created by Westworld‘s Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan — we’ll meet dogged bounty hunters, witness tense stand-offs, and venture into vast wastelands populated by all manner of dangerous factions. It’s a giant cockroach-eat-giant cockroach world out there, and Fallout is at its best when it delves into just how weird, wild, and messed-up said world can be.

What’s Fallout about?

Lucy from "Fallout" walks through a tunnel into a scrapyard.

Ella Purnell in “Fallout.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video

To set the stage for its “new kind of Western,” Fallout needs a “new” America. It delivers two. First up is the America of 2077, where we’ll be spending some time in flashbacks. It’s a retrofuturistic vision to behold, all ’50s aesthetics, advanced robotics, and Cold War paranoia. But don’t get too used to it! Soon, this America — and the entire world — will fall in the face of a global nuclear war.

Human civilization endures 219 years later, in the form of isolated underground survival shelters known as Vaults, where residents hope to one day resettle the surface of the world. Among these Vault Dwellers are Vault 33 Overseer Hank MacLean and his daughter Lucy, a young woman with a disposition that’s sunnier and more all-American than the idyllic Nebraska cornfields projected on Vault 33’s walls.

Lucy’s relentless pep takes a sharp nosedive after an attack on Vault 33. Despite the warnings from her fellow Vault Dwellers, she takes it upon herself to go to the surface and make things right. But the world she discovers above ground is unlike anything she could have ever prepared for. It’s full of cannibals, mutant creatures, and people who simply don’t understand Lucy’s beloved Golden Rule: Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Here, she’ll cross paths with Maximus (Aaron Moten), a member of the menacing Brotherhood of Steel, and the Ghoul (Goggins), a radiation-scarred bounty hunter who’s been alive for centuries.

Fallout is a blast, but it takes some time to get there.

Maximus from "Fallout" stands next to a massive suit of power armor.

Aaron Moten in “Fallout.”
Credit: JoJo Whilden / Prime Video

It takes some time for Fallout to really click as the series maneuvers its pieces into place. Our main gateways into the show’s world are Vault 33 and the Brotherhood of Steel, and the tonal whiplash between these factions can be intense. As we smash from the Vault’s barrage of cousin incest jokes and Jell-O cakes to the hulking power armor and religious techno-fascism of the Brotherhood of Steel, it feels like Fallout is struggling to find its footing (especially with its humor). 

It’s not until Lucy and Maximus truly separate themselves from their homes that Fallout lets loose, throwing everything from giant mutated axolotls to plot-relevant decapitated heads to a beloved dog companion from the Fallout game at us. The show becomes zanier and freer the further Lucy and Maximus get from their starting companions, a development that’s definitely in keeping with Fallout‘s Western tendencies. 

So much of a Western is the evolution of the individual in the face of a totally new, rugged landscape: How do we change when confronted with a new frontier, one where we can run wild and give into our base instincts in order to survive? In Lucy’s case, you struggle to hold fast to your principles, even if you find yourself headed to a dark place. (Fans of Purnell’s turn as Jackie in Yellowjackets should be excited to see another optimistic Purnell character facing a dire reckoning at the hands of the wilderness.) If you’re Maximus, you may find yourself taking on a whole new identity, using a stint in the wasteland as a chance to completely rewrite yourself.

The Ghoul is Fallout‘s standout.

The Ghoul from "Fallout" smiles.

Walton Goggins in “Fallout.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video

The Ghoul serves as the perfect foil for Lucy and Maximus, with Goggins deploying megatons’ worth of weary charisma in his performance as Fallout‘s resident lone wolf, black hat archetype. While Lucy and Maximus are newer to the wasteland, the Ghoul has experienced it from the moment the bombs fell. He’s the specter of the past dragged into the dusty, feral present — a present, we learn from flashbacks to the Ghoul’s former life as Cooper Howard, that he may have had more of a role in creating than previously thought.

Because, in true Nolan and Joy fashion, Fallout isn’t just a nuclear Western. It’s also a bit of a mystery box. There’s the question of the Ghoul’s own past, but there’s also a delightful bit of intrigue down in Vault 33, as Lucy’s brother, Norm (Moises Arias), investigates the security breach that led to his father’s kidnapping. Boasting reveals that will shock, awe, and maybe even blindside loyal game fans, Fallout proves satisfying without the mysteries overstaying their welcome.

These mysteries and Fallout‘s full embrace of the Western genre speak to its solid approach to adapting a video game series as sprawling and beloved as Fallout. Instead of adapting one specific game storyline, the show uses the games’ settings, character archetypes, and various genres — yes, including Westerns — to craft something that is at once original, yet wholly Fallout. Yes, there may be some stumbles in this televised excursion through the wasteland, but it’s still a fun ride.

All episodes of Fallout premiere Apr. 10 at 9 p.m. ET on Prime Video.





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