Episodes 01 – 02
If you were enchanted with The Mandalorian’s tale of an armored space warrior and his freshly-adopted waif traipsing around the galaxy while he learns how to feel feelings, and that enchantment wasn’t rooted in the specific setting, then jump on board the Paramount+ Halo series; the parallels are obvious.
Based on the popular video game franchise by Bungie, Halo has been a long time coming. Certainly, there have been numerous live-action and animated promotional shorts fanged out by Microsoft over the years, including two DTV features, but the path to a big ol’ prestige-level project has been a long and arduous one. Alex Garland, Annihilation (2018), wrote a script that was shopped around back in 2005. Neill Blomkamp, District 9 (2009), was going to direct with Peter Jackson producing. Before that, Guillermo del Toro was in talks to call the shots. A stop-start preproduction period dragged on for years, and the general impression was that Microsoft/Bungie were keeping a tight rein on the X-Box flagship property, making sure the iconic Master Chief was being treated right. As a result, we’ve never actually had a theatrical live-action Halo flick. Were they being too precious?
Well, having seen the first couple of episodes of the series, all signs point to yes. Developed by Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, the Halo TV series is … pretty okay. And pretty generic. Perhaps that’s to be expected; Halo as a franchise is not particularly original, but it excels at synthesizing pre-existing concepts into something that feels fresh and engaging when played. When watched? Not so fresh, not so engaging, but it’ll still scratch that sci-fi action itch, and I’m sure that dedicated fans will enjoy seeing the various costumes, ships, vehicles, and weapons from the games recreated in fetishistic detail here.
And so, to the plot, while avoiding going down the lore rabbit hole: it’s the 26th century, and humanity has trekked to the stars, carving out a large number of colonial outposts, some of whom bristle under the centralized command of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). Meanwhile, a theocratic, multi-species alien horde called the Covenant have begun attacking human-occupied worlds (Halo, we should remember, dates from the early days of the Global War on Terror). On the rebel world Madrigal, a UNSC operation to suppress revolt coincides with a Covenant attack. When the dust settles, there are few survivors: teen Kwan Ha Boo (Yerin Ha), who just saw her entire community slaughtered in front of her, and a squad of UNSC Spartans: towering, genetically modified, armored killing machines with a strong Robocop-by-way-of-Starship-Troopers vibe. Ordered to off the kid, one of them, Master Chief John-117 (Pablo Schreiber), goes rogue. While the powers that be back at UNHC command, including Natascha McElhone, Ronin (1998), as scientist Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey, try to figure out how to get their military asset back with the program, Master Chief and Kwan head off into the galactic underworld. And what’s the deal with the weird alien artifact they found on Madrigal?
Fans of the games will recognize plenty, and the series is smart to plant the seeds of the big Ancient Alien/Precursor plotline right out of the gate. For everyone else, Halo the series offers familiar elements with a fresh coat of paint: bits of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Starship Troopers (1997), Warhammer 40K, The Mandalorian (2019 – ), Firefly (2002-03), The Expanse (2015 – ), Soldier (the old Paul W.S. Anderson/Kurt Russell actioner from ‘98), and more. In execution, the first episode is a little clunky, mainly setting up the various characters and factions before pushing off into a set narrative direction. Things improve in episode two when Bokeem Woodbine, Riddick (2013), shows up as Spartan deserter Soren-066, now an outlaw on an asteroid mining colony.
The visual aesthetic improves, too. At first sniff, for all that the powered armor and aliens are game-accurate, Halo feels like a weekend LARP; the costumes are too clean and generic, the outdoor locations on Madrigal too Earthly. We also, unfortunately, get a few point-of-view shots during combat to replicate the First-Person Shooter experience of the game, but they didn’t work in the Doom (2005) movie, and they don’t work here. But when we’re hanging out in the refreshingly physical interior sets of Soren’s outlaw colony, Halo somewhat ironically feels less artificial. At the same time, Woodbine’s easy charm offers a counterpoint to Schreiber’s stoic space commando and Ha’s traumatized survivor.
The best that can be said at this point is that Halo shows promise, even if it doesn’t knock it out of the park straight off. There’s an intriguing parallel story being set up with a human Covenant agent (Charlie Murphy) whose position and fervent loyalty to Covenant ideology mirrors Master Chief’s experiences as an indoctrinated child soldier, and we should hope that gets explored in depth. In the meantime, as long as you’re not expecting an epochal game-changer, genre fans should dig this one.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson