The Guardian • Issue #2099

Streaming Review

Fallout

Tram stops and bus shelters all around Australian cities are decorated with giant cog-door designs to promote a TV show called Fallout. Is this new series from Amazon escapist fun, politically interesting, or both?

On the fun side, this adaption of a much-loved computer game has violence, sexual tension, and some black comedy. On the politically interesting front, the background theme is US decline, corporate takeover of the state, and paranoia. There’s something for everyone, although it’s an uneasy mix at times: do I laugh at this person being eaten by a giant fish-monster, or do I get involved with their emotional journey? People who’ve played and loved the game seem to divide into two groups; ecstatic to see the game made into a story, and upset because the story is too different to the source. That’s adaptions for you.

The show takes place in two different times; on the brink of a catastrophic nuclear war, and about two hundred years after that war. The brink-of-war part takes place in an alternative USA: the consumer items are all sort of 1950s; lovely curved fridges and cars, old-fashioned black-and-white tv sets and toasters. There are times when Fallout feels like one of those hipster cafes that strive to look like a 1964-era kitchen. The prewar mindset is somewhat Cold War 1950s too – anyone who’s not gung-ho about the war gets called a “commies,” and people are nervous about being seen to rock the boat. It’s not your grandparents/great-grandparents’ 1950s. There are robots, people are working on cold fusion, and little wrist computers are a thing. Also there’s a large evil company called ‘Vaultec’ selling vaults – enormous bomb shelters where people can live safe from the impending apocalypse.

The other timezone is some two hundred years later. Life in the vaults is safe, still very retro and somewhat creepily cheerful, but with dark secrets in the background. Life up on the surface is desperate and nasty as per every post-apocalypse movie ever.

Lucy (Ella Purnell) is a naive vault-dweller on a quest to find her father who has been kidnapped by raiders from the surface. She meets up with Maximus (Aaron Moten) a squire from an order of ‘knights’ who have cornered the market on giant suits of fusion-powered armour which makes them practically invulnerable.

Lucy also comes across a ‘ghoul,’ played by Walton Goggins in an absolutely killer part. Goggins gets to be in both timezones – pre-war he’s a Cooper Howard, a cowboy actor who’s going along with the establishment and Vaultec’s evil plans, but has a troubled conscience. In the future, he’s been transformed into a ghoul, a kind of skeletal creature, like an intelligent zombie.  Goggins, who some people will remember from the superb African-American left-wing superhero series I’m a Virgo where he was an evil Iron Man-resembling superhero (see Guardian July 24 2023), and does very well as both the troubled actor and as the ghoul, who’s kind like a chattier version of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western characters with a hole where his nose should be.

So is there much in for communists? Well, there’s a background fear of US decline, and, as is often the case, a fear of the underclass. It was noticeable during the Clinton years that the Democrats talked about “saving the middle class,” more or less admitting that any classes under that had to fend for themselves. In Fallout the rich are desperate to get into the vaults – the better vaults that is (of course there’s a class system during a nuclear apocalypse). The rich are also terrified of the poor, which sounds about right.

While pre-war Cooper Howard is working out what’s really going on, a friend tells him about fiduciary duty explaining that companies are legally obliged to make more money for shareholders, and if that conflicts with things the government is paying those companies to do, fiduciary duty has to win out. As someone explains, ‘fiduciary responsibility’ means that Vaultec have an interest in making sure that the apocalypse arrives on time. The friend tells Cooper that you don’t save the world with “the system that’s ready to set the world on fire.” Back in reality, that’s just what capitalist governments are trying to do; the Australian government seems set on trusting gas companies to save us from the consequences of burning fossil fuels.

Fallout isn’t perfect. At times it feels like the makers of this very expensive adaption couldn’t make their mind up as to whether they were making a black comedy or a serious end-of-the-world drama. There’s no reason why you can’t make a series that’s both, but it’s an uneasy mix.

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