The moment I heard Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” instead of Martin O’Donnell’s iconic Halo score, I knew something wasn’t right. Gamers have been waiting for a live action adaptation of Halo for over a decade now. The closest we got was Neil Blomkamp’s collection of short, gritty, live action combat sequences filmed to promote the release of Halo 3 back in 2010. While all the signs pointed to a live-action adaptation then, Blomkamp’s project eventually fizzled out — later turning into District 9. Those early, documentary-like clips have burned themselves into fans’ heads for what a live action Halo adaptation should look like. But short clips of combat footage does not a series make, and while the Halo TV series has taken notes from Blomkamp in regards to depiction of the combat, it changes a few things that managed to raise the eyebrows of even this casual fan.
Halo starts off by introducing us to audience proxy Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) and her group of rebels on the planet Madrigal. These freedom fighters have been holding out against fascist UNSC control, swapping horror stories about the fabled and feared Spartan soldiers and their effectiveness, and how they “keep killing without mercy until there’s nothing left to kill,” as one gruff veteran puts it. It doesn’t take long for Madrigal to come under attack—but not from the UNSC. Instead, it’s the Covenant: a group of aliens that have been waging a small war on the fringes of UNSC space for years. In comes Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) with a contingent of Spartan super soldiers in tow. These armored, helmeted soldiers make short work of the Covenant, but not before Kwan’s friends and family are killed horrifically around her in surprisingly gory fashion.
It turns out the Covenant were on Madrigal to acquire an artifact linked to a Halo ring. Once Master Chief touches it, he’s given visions of his time before he was a super soldier—something that prompts him to disobey orders, causing a lot of consternation for the top brass of the blatantly evil UNSC. Master Chief has to make a choice between his newfound humanity or following orders—no matter how cruel.
Helmeted protagonists seem to be in high demand lately, but while The Mandalorian waited its entire first season to unmask its star, Halo does it within the first episode. Before the helmet comes off, Schreiber’s Master Chief reminded me of Steve Downes’ iconic portrayal. I wish he would have kept it on. I can’t help but be reminded of Robocop as Schreiber’s Master Chief struggles with his new memories, and Schreiber even seems to channel Peter Weller with his portrayal, especially in interactions with Kwan.
Halo has one main problem: it’s trying to tell its own story while keeping true to the franchise. The Halo video game franchise is 16 games strong, with over 20 novels filling out the lore of the Halo universe. There’s a lot of lore for the TV series to take from. While the Halo video game series often features pitched battles in its all-out war against the Covenant, the TV series hasn’t gotten to that point in the conflict. Instead, it’s all build up between a war of religious fanatical aliens and an oppressive human government. I wouldn’t be sure who to root for if Halo didn’t spend so much time telling me just how awesome the Spartan super soldiers are.
The Halo TV series does get some things correct, however—at least from the perspective of this casual Halo series fan. The Sangheili look fearsome and formidable during a combat sequence that is slightly reminiscent of Blomkamp’s Landfall. They even grunt and “wot wot” like in the games. The Spartans similarly look impressive; however, in some shots I couldn’t help but see them as just actors in bulky cosplay. Some scenes really sell the Halo series as a live action realization of the games, and others felt cheap and sloppy, like the fan service scenes shot from Master Chief’s first person perspective. There are a few sequences, especially during the intro battle with the covenant, that were set to intentionally look like a first person shooter. It was corny when it was done in Doom 2005 and it’s just as corny now. Choosing to have such sequences is baffling, too, because Halo tries so earnestly to be serious, dramatic character driven TV.
There are some things that depart from the Halo franchise significantly, too, which (I’m sure) will elicit vocal displeasure from fans, especially the TV show’s handling of Cortana, and the human that is among the traditionally xenophobic San’Shyuum. I’m wary to see what other changes the TV show has in store.
I think the Halo TV series is trying to do too much: it’s got smatterings of The Mandalorian along with a little bit of conflict that looks like it could come from The Expanse, with aliens that look like they’re out of Star Wars. When Halo: Combat Evolved released way back in 2001, it did take some heavy cues from popular films (notably Aliens) so it’s coincidentally on par for the TV series to do the same. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything in the first two episodes of Halo that made me want to keep watching.
Episode one of Halo will debut March 24th, with Episode 2 following on March 31st, both on Paramount Plus.
An advanced screener was provided to us for this review.
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