- Creator: Kyle Killen and Steven Kane
- Starring: Pablo Schreiber, Yerin Ha, Natasha McElhone, Bokeem Woodbine, Charlie Murphy
- Nine episode season. Two episodes watched for review.
A screen adaptation of Halo the video game makes perfect sense and is incredibly difficult, both at the same time. The project has been talked about, in one form or another, since not long after the ground-breaking shooting game debuted on the Xbox platform in 2001. At one point, the show had attached Stephen Spielberg as a producer and was supposed to premiere in 2015. And yet, for all its cinematic beauty, the game is fairly light on story elements, especially in characterization. Master Chief is an iconic looking video game character, but is purposefully obtuse. Not until the fleeting moments of the initial trilogy does he become anything more than a ruthless killing machine – indeed, you’re never fully sure if he’s actually a person or a robot, or both.
Video game adaptations live and die on how closely they can adhere to what works so well in the source material. How accurately can you convey the excitement of running and jumping and shooting and discovering that comes along with a video game when you’re not the one initiating all of these actions? To its credit, the opening sequence of the pilot episode, “Contact,” slides into this mode better than most video game adaptations I’ve ever seen.
After an efficient opening scene that establishes the necessary characters – a group of rebels on an outpost planet who despise the UNSC and their Spartans, of which Master Chief is one – all hell breaks loose. The Covenant – mysterious hulking aliens who serve as the game’s main antagonists – suddenly ambush the rebel base and ruthlessly slaughter anyone they find. Our audience proxy throughout this chaos is Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha). Soon enough, a group of Spartans drops in, including Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and obliterates the Covenant. The following action scene is a wonderfully brutal shoot-em-up sequence that feels like it comes straight from the game, including the occasional first-person shot as the Spartans dispatch the Covenant with all manner of weapons. So far, Schreiber turns out to be a blessing as Master Chief, using his gruff, menacing voice while wearing the helmet, and nailing the dramatic parts when it’s off. And his chemistry with Yerin Ha helps to form the emotional backbone of the first two episodes. Here are two characters with polar opposite backgrounds and worldviews that find themselves lost in space together, but eventually find a commonality.
What’s most refreshing about the first two episodes of the series is that it feels like series creators Kyle Killen and Steven Kane are making Halo for die-hard fans of the game (such as myself). Surely the details of the Halo universe are inherently silly on its surface, and the show thankfully never really shies away from this silliness. It can be all too easy for a game adaptation to try and broaden its appeal and bring in casual viewers looking for new content, and there are certain elements of the show that are evident of this, but Halo appears to be a show made specifically for those that fell in love with this universe over 20 years ago.
Understandably, the excitement quickly cools down after the pre-credits sequence in “Contact” and never quite reaches those same heights in the two episodes watched for this review. Before evacuating the outpost, Master Chief retrieves a mysterious Covenant artifact that only activates when he touches it, and which shows him equally mysterious visions, possibly from his forgotten childhood. Freaked out that the unstoppable warrior that they created may develop emotions for the first time, the UNSC tries to rein in their Spartan. But something has changed within Master Chief and he takes off on his own, seeking to find the answers within the relic.
Natasha McElhone appears as Dr. Halsey, a scientist who sticks by John and has developed the Cortana system – an artificial intelligence that serves as Master Chief’s surrogate conscience in the games. Much of the second episode, “Unbound”, is spent with Bokeem Woodbine, always a welcome presence, as a former Spartan who got out before it was too late. Woodbine and Schreiber’s scenes together go a long way to sell their differing philosophies on the super-soldier program. And in an interestingly unique departure from the games, a handful of minutes in both episodes are dedicated to the Covenant’s perspective, which is led by Makee (Charlie Murphy), a human who’s revered by their high command and opposes the humans.
Killen and Kane use the first two episodes to set up plenty of intriguing storylines, and it’s clear they have grander designs for the rest of the season. Indeed, at the end of “Unbound”, the titular Halo – an installation that the Covenant can use to obliterate any and all of their enemies – seems to be unknown to everyone. Paramount has already picked up the series for a second season, so Halo at least has some support from the higher-ups. Video game adaptations get a bad reputation and the formula for success isn’t as easy as corporations believe it to be – just look at this year’s dud of Uncharted. No matter how “cinematic” or story-focused a game can be, it doesn’t guarantee a successful transition to the big or small screen.
With Halo, the endgame may be obvious for those familiar with the games, and the characters aren’t shaded in as neatly as they could be for those who aren’t; at least among those who don’t blow things up real good, as most of the UNSC characters are essentially Gruff Military types. But it’s uplifting to see that Paramount has invested enough in Killen and Kane to smooth out these bumps eventually, while still making a faithful adaptation of a beloved property.
The first episode of Halo will premiere on Paramount+ on March 24 with subsequent episodes released weekly.