Fans of the Halo franchise have long awaited a big-budget, live-action series featuring the iconic spartan. A decade ago, the web series Forward Unto Dawn premiered on YouTube as an interesting prequel to the first game. It didn’t quite scratch the itch though and people wanted more. Well, Paramount+ finally took on the project. Unfortunately, after the pilot, it looks like we aren’t getting the great series that could have been.
Instead of interpreting the story from the video games into the TV medium, it seems like the creators, Steven Kane and Kyle Killen, are going for more of a complete reboot. Not only is the plot completely detached from the original game, but the characters also appear to have very little in common with their XBOX counterparts. The industry seems to have pumped out another video game adaptation that completely disregards its fan base.
In the spirit of fairness, I will attempt to judge the series on its own merits in the main body of this review and save any more comparisons to the game franchise until the end.
Episode 1 of Halo is available to stream now on Paramount+. New episodes release every Thursday.
Story: New and Not-So Improved
Forget most of what you know about Halo and Master Chief because this series is starting from scratch. The setting is basically the same though. In the 26th Century, humans have colonized much of the galaxy. The UNSC, a militarized governmental body, controls most of the human colonies, although an insurrection has left humanity in something like a galactic civil war.
Enter the planet Madrigal, an outpost populated by insurrectionists. A mysterious ship appears outside the outpost and the alien cabal known as the Covenant attacks the compound while trying to extract an artifact found on the planet. The UNSC somehow responds immediately and sends down a unit of super-soldiers known as Spartans to eliminate the aliens. All but one of the inhabitants of the community are killed before the Spartans defeat the aliens. With the Covenant artifact and single survivor, Master Chief heads back to UNSC headquarters.
After a short conversation with the teenage survivor, Kwan Ha, and a difficult order from UNSC command, Master Chief removes his helmet to gain the trust of Kwan and abandons decades of training and programming to help save this insurrectionist. While this interaction is heartwarming, it comes across as completely unbelievable. Spartans are genetically altered killing machines that have been programmed from a very young age to follow orders.
Master Chief is praised as the greatest of the Spartans. He is used as propaganda across the galaxy as the UNSC’s deadliest weapon. The idea that he would disobey a routine order, as disturbing as it is, and go AWOL to save someone he just met while an alien civilization intent on exterminating humanity is becoming bolder, seems absurd.
Characters & Performances: Unearned Character Development
The characters that stand out in the pilot episode of Halo are the Spartans, particularly Master Chief, and the young insurgent, Kwan Ha. Kwan, played by Yerin Ha, is the main emotional connection for the audience. However, as the sole survivor of her entire community, she seems to recover from this unbelievable trauma in a matter of hours. Instead of mourning the loss of her father and everyone she knows, she focuses on turning Master Chief against his superiors. Granted this does show loyalty to the insurrectionist cause she grew up with.
Master Chief, AKA John 117, the greatest weapon of humanity, is convinced by an enemy teenager to abandon his entire purpose in life after one conversation. It’s not impossible that he could have such a change of heart, but it does feel extremely unearned. This openness to change is supposedly triggered by the contact he had with the artifact the Covenant were after which gave him a fleeting flash of a memory about a family. Although, he has no idea it is a memory. The idea, I assume, is that this flash opened an emotional avenue he hadn’t experienced before. His sudden betrayal of the UNSC could have been earned given enough time under the circumstances, but it happens almost without hesitation.
Characters that didn’t get much screen time, but stood out, were the UNSC staff back at headquarters and the other Spartans. Dr. Halsey is the creator of the Spartan program and has a special relationship with the super soldiers. While she has kept a great deal from them and lied to them about where they came from their whole life, she seems to be the only one that cares about them as people and not just weapons. In this way, she has the most complicated and interesting motivations in the episode. The Spartans, even though they fall in the chain of command under the UNSC, take her orders over the military commanders.
Cinematography and Sound: Special Effects Disaster
First, I should praise those who did well. Director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub and his team did excellent work. The action sequences were shot very well and created a feeling of suspense and urgency. The sound team added to this effect but also gave a light touch to effects that could have been overdone. The alien weapon fire feels unique but grounded.
With that said, the special effects were shockingly bad at times. The first taste of this comes in the first few minutes as Kwan and a group of her friends comes over a hill. Behind them is a green screenshot of the outpost so bad that it completely took me out of the experience. The sharp line that separates the practical foreground from the greenscreen background draws the eye immediately. The shot that shows a vast valley appears to have no depth as though it’s the stationary background of a hand-drawn cartoon.
Most of the CGI is no better. The aliens, known as elites, that attack the outpost are cartoonish at times. Oddly, the closer the alien gets the better they look, but the full-body shots of them walking across the frame are completely unbelievable. These special effects are on par with the web series Forward Unto Dawn, which had a minuscule budget compared to this $90 million show. The web series at least had the sense to have most of the special effects take place at night when it wasn’t as noticeable. Regardless, this quality of special effects is great for a web series but unacceptable for something with this budget in my opinion.
Editing and Pacing: Fast-Paced To a Fault
This episode moves fast. The action is impatient to start, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The pacing and editing in this particular episode move along at a good brisk pace that keeps the audience engaged. There is quite a lot to take in so they do run the risk of loading a bit too much information in one episode.
The conclusion of this episode feels very unearned as I mentioned in the story section above. It feels as though too many developments come at the audience for a pilot episode. It may be exciting to see Master Chief do a full 180 in his motivation in episode 1, but I’m not sure where that will leave us for the rest of the series.
Source Material: The Problem With Adaptations
Audiences have been plagued with lackluster video adaptations for years now. Unfortunately, Halo may be the next victim. In a piece at Variety, many of the show’s development team gave interviews acknowledging the difficulty in adapting a video game into another medium. What seems to be the main takeaway is this quote from showrunner Steven Kane:
We didn’t look at the game… We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about the characters and the world. So I never felt limited by it being a game.
This is an extremely disappointing perspective. Mentions are also made of aiming for a broad audience which, in itself, isn’t a terrible thing. The problem is that the Halo franchise has a long history and a dedicated fan base that is seemingly being forgotten in an attempt to “broaden” the audience. None of what I’m saying is new. This is the dread of all video game fanatics that have to watch their beloved franchises be disrespected by an industry that doesn’t care about the source material or the audience.