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As the multi-decade process of attempting to adapt the Halo juggernaut for the big or small screen finally culminates in the release of a new series on Paramount+, expect plenty of reviews from gamers addressing connections to the franchise, pointing out Easter eggs and all that fun stuff.
This will not be one of those.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Episodic Premieres)
Airdate: Thursday, March 24 (Paramount+)
Cast: Pablo Schreiber, Natascha McElhone, Yerin Ha, Charlie Murphy, Shabana Azmi, Bokeem Woodbine, Kate Kennedy, Natasha Culzac, Bentley Calu, Jen Taylor
Creators: Kyle Killen and Steven Kane from the video game series
This is a review of how Paramount+’s Halo functions as a television series. Nothing more or less.
I mention this because I went into the first two episodes of Halo terrified that it was going to be an impenetrable morass of jargon and mythology, by fans and for fans, with nothing to engage the casually curious.
There’s no doubt that the early Halo episodes are full of references and that Halo is probably a richer universe if you know the games. But total or relative neophytes will still be able to watch without fear of excessive confusion. The bigger question is why anybody without pre-existing investment would want to watch.
Creators Kyle Killen and Steven Kane have adapted Halo in a way that basically renders it — with the emphasis on “basic” — a clone of The Mandalorian (or Sweet Tooth or The Road or Lone Wolf and Cub). Boasting no technological innovation to speak of, few performances to offer meaningful grounding and only limited action thrills, Halo is aggressively forgettable, which is at least several steps up from “bad.”
The series begins in the year 2552 on Madrigal, described as a “Tier 4 Heavy Water Extraction Planet.” Inhabitants of Madrigal are suffering under the lash of the colonizing United Nations Space Command (UNSC). They’re already on the verge of revolt when the planet is attacked by Covenant forces. Covenant is an alliance of alien races, but for purposes of the attack, they’re a bunch of big, vicious aliens with armor and advanced weaponry.
The residents of Madrigal are about to be wiped out entirely, when a group of USNC supersoldiers called “Spartans” come to the rescue. Kinda. Unlike the Madrigalians, the Spartans are at least capable of fighting off the aliens, but nearly everybody on this section of Madrigal gets killed, with the exception of Kwan (Yerin Ha), daughter of a local military leader.
The head of the Spartan squad is Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 (Pablo Schreiber) — “Master Chief” to some, “Chief” to others, “John” to a random few — and he is entrusted with bringing Kwan back to the UNSC stronghold of Reach. Master Chief’s cargo also includes a strange relic that appears to have been the source of Covenant interest. The relic, a souped-up Trivial Pursuit pie piece, is inert most of the time, but when Master Chief touches it, it becomes a source of energy and nostalgic flashbacks to a time before he was augmented into an oversized killing machine. The job of the Spartans is not to reason why, but Master Chief receives an order that causes him to question his purpose and perhaps his entire existence.
So what you’re left with, very quickly, is the story of an emotionally restricted warrior bound by a strict code who, with the assistance of a diminutive sidekick, finds himself recovering connection to his humanity, a process that can be embodied by the occasional removal of the helmet that is integral to his dispassionate persona. Sound familiar?
I, of course, know that The Mandalorian didn’t create this format, and that all of the key creative pieces of Halo were in place long before Disney+ even existed, much less their Emmy-winning Star Wars series. And yes, the Halo world is more complicated than that if you want to delve into the clash between the Covenant — seemingly theocratic and ruled by “blessed ones” and prophecies and whatnot — and the UNSC, presented as a capitalist bureaucracy with no compunction about essentially enslaving local populations. But none of the distinctive elements are the least bit interesting from an outsider’s perspective, so it is what it is.
Visually, Halo has a little scale and the occasional eye-popping piece of imagery, ranging from Covenant’s glowing interstellar hub — like a jellyfish or a brain, complete with a spinal stem — to the colorful, pulsing evocation of the franchise’s “slipspace” travel. But if you’re making a sci-fi world-building comparison, there isn’t a second here that comes close to what something like Apple TV+’s Foundation delivered on a weekly basis.
Directed by Otto Bathurst, the first episode — especially its opening half-hour — is full of fighting and explosions, yet it’s all frustratingly weightless computer imagery. There’s some graphic violence in the pilot, which has its few wholly human characters getting blown up at a steady clip, but most of the conflict is Spartans fighting Covenant warriors without any sense of heft or gravity. It might as well be a video game, and not a great one, though there’s ample effort to simulate the game’s first-person shooter aesthetics, which will be evident whether you’ve played this particular game or not.
The second episode is almost entirely devoid of action, built around a reunion between Master Chief and a former Spartan colleague named Soren (Bokeem Woodbine) on a settlement known as The Rubble, a nicely realized piece of production design. Woodbine is so good and so instantly likable, and he gives Soren a distinctly individual personality in a series in which human, robot and alien alike are variations on automatons. You can almost ignore that, as presented here, the character is basically Lando Calrissian. The second episode of the series comfortably exceeds the first because of Woodbine alone.
Other than Woodbine, it’s hard to find any performances worth shouting out. Schreiber has some notes of deadpan humor that elevate Master Chief barely above being simply robotic. Ha captures the pluckiness that is Kwan’s only personality trait, but she has no character beyond that, and the Master Chief/Kwan interactions are paint-by-numbers.
All of the actors playing UNSC officials and scientists are stuck delivering clumsy dialogue clumsily, and it’s only Natascha McElhone, as Spartan mastermind Dr. Halsey, who contributes a hint of mania that counts loosely as personality. As a human with some power with the Covenant, Irish actress Charlie Murphy is enigmatic enough for me to want more details about the character’s origins — perhaps the only piece of the storyline to evoke any curiosity at all.
And maybe Halo does play as more exciting and specific if you have an internal checklist of game elements — weapon types, helpful acquisitions, character or planetary allusions — you’re looking to have acknowledged. For those of us who don’t necessarily crave or appreciate those things, Halo has a generic story, limitedly engaging characters and a clearly high special-effects budget that yields respectable but unremarkable results. In the absence of prior attachment, that’s insufficient for ongoing interest.
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