Halo the series is owned by Paramount Plus
Directed by Otto Bathurst
The first Halo game released all the way back in 2001 as an Xbox exclusive, and even back then everyone involved knew that this was going to be a big deal. Still, despite all the critical acclaim, the dozens of novels based in this universe, and a clear desire to make something more of the franchise, the leap from Video Games to Hollywood just never worked out. Some version of a Halo television series has been in development since at least 2015 with attempts to make a movie going as far back as 2005, and while we do have some straight to video stuff like Halo Legends and Forward Unto Dawn, a big budget adaptation for the masses had always eluded them. Still, it’s probably best that we didn’t get one of these during the dark ages of video game movies when Max Payne and Hitman were stinking up the multiplexes, and the era of streaming has been good for sci-shows the last few years. With all that said, and with twenty years of hype behind it, does this first episode manage to capture the spirit of the series and is a good sign of things to come, or will this get cancelled faster than a typical Netflix series? Let’s find out!!
The Story of Halo takes place in the 26th-century as humanity has traveled well beyond our own solar system and has colonized planets through the galaxy. For the most part, this has gone well as humanity has thrived and the resources from these colonies have only furthered our technological and societal advancement; maybe not Star Trek levels of utopia, but still pretty good! Of course, as humanity stretched itself further and further away from Earth, those furthest away started rebelling against them and the Earth’s military force known as the United Nations Space Command, or UNSC. This proves to be poor timing for humanity to start turning against itself as an intergalactic group of alien races known as the Covenant started showing up at these outer colonies and didn’t come bearing fruit baskets. Nope, full-on genocide and ethnic cleansing as they kill every human they come across with their far superior technology. This is the state of things as we start the first episode on one of the outer colonies and we follow Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) who’s about to have a very bad day. Her colony is attacked and destroyed by the Covenant with the UNSC only showing up after everyone else is dead to clean up the mess. Those sent to do the mess cleaning by the way are Spartans; the greatest soldiers (and greatest propaganda tools) that the UNSC has, and while we’re still learning the truth about them in this series, there are rumors about genetic augmentation that strikes fear into the more rebellious members of the outer colonies. With Kwan Ha as the last survivor and the Spartans finding some alien artifact that the Covenant were digging for, the head Spartan known as Master Chief (Chief if you’re colleagues, John if you’re friends, and played by Pablo Schreiber) takes her and the artifact back to the UNSC central command on a planet called Reach. The trip is tumultuous however as the UNSC, as well as the head of the Spartan program Doctor Halsey (Natascha McElhone), are unsure of what to expect upon their return. After touching the artifact, Chief’s vitals have been off the charts and he’s been acting a little strangely, while Kwan Ha is proving not to be overly gracious to the UNSC after being “saved” by them. Tensions escalate on this small ship and the command back on Reach until they hit a boiling point and Chief has to decide what his ironclad sense of duty truly means and what it will force him to do.
I wouldn’t call myself the biggest Halo fan out there. I tried to do a Retrospective of the series and gained a sizable appreciation for the extended lore, but I eventually burned out and have only experienced maybe a third of everything that Halo has done since it became a cultural phenomenon. For the hardest of the hardcore fans, I imagine that there is a lot about this that annoys them or doesn’t feel sufficiently Halo, but for me, I think I actually love what they’re doing here; almost as if it was made for exactly my level of fandom. I know enough about the lore and backstory to understand where a lot of the plot threads are being pulled from, but I’m not so enamored with that vision of the franchise that I can’t appreciate the very clear changes that they’ve made to make this work as a series for fans and non-fans alike. Sure, there’s a bit of groundwork they need to lay regarding the alien side of this, but I think the show is doing a good job so far of drawing the details of this world and hooking people in with the characters and action.
If you’re a Halo fan, then there are a lot of things that they do get right. The armor, the ships, the weapons, they all look very game accurate and for the most part fit with the tone that they’re trying to establish; somewhere between modern-day Star Trek and The Expanse. The big action scene to kick the series off is well choreographed and quite brutal (more so than the games), and certainly gets the ball rolling in a big way. They even throw in little sound effects like the shield recharging sound and a few shots from the first person to try and replicate the feel of the game while still feeling like its own take on the action. What I wasn’t expecting though is the quality of writing on display here; certainly nothing exceptional or award-winning, but video games adaptations have always had issues with poor writing and lousy dialogue which this manages to avoid. It helps that they keep things very small and very personal for Chief as soon as the action is over by sticking him in a small ship with Kwan Ha; pretty much forcing him to come out of his shell a bit and giving us some insights into his character. There’s not much to differentiate him from the version we’ve gotten for the last twenty years, but there’s definitely a frailty to him that is much appreciated. Master Chief and the Spartans being puppets for the UNSC to throw at whatever horrific situations arise is a topic that’s been pretty well explored, but it’s usually examined from an outside perspective, and rarely do the Spartans show the weight of that themselves. Pablo Schreiber is doing a fantastic job of using his voice and mannerisms to convey the weariness that all aspects of this war have caused him, and sure, there’s more than a little influence from Pedro Pascal’s performance as The Mandalorian here, but it works for what it needs to be and is exactly the kind of change that I was hoping this series would be willing to take.
There are a few nit-picks though that did hold the episode back a bit. From a non-fan perspective, I think the production looks a little garish and artificial. Not exactly cheap as money was definitely spent making this and they do a great job of recreating the look of the franchise, but there is a sort of blocky cleanness to it that makes it look less like a lived-in world and more like a pristine toy box. No real blemishes on anything, uniforms, hair, and makeup are flawless on everyone on reach despite them being a mix of soldiers and scientists, and the Spartans feel a bit too floaty in the action. Of course they’ve always been able to move with grace with vertical leaps to rival Superman, but there’s also a lack of impact when they bump up against something or put their full weight on things. The other issue is definitely going to bug fans more than non-fans, though I imagine those who aren’t in the know about certain things will still feel that events escalated pretty quickly. This is where I also risk a few controversial opinions when it comes to the lore, but I guess we should draw our lines in the sand before going any further on this. The Halo series (the novels more specifically) have always felt rather skewed towards militarism and jingoism; holding up the UNSC as the stoic ideal of heroism while the outer colonist rebels as scheming, selfish, and vain. Certainly, there are arguments on how to interpret the text, but I’ve always been of the opinion that the books aren’t written in a vacuum and are not immune to the biases and values of the writers, and so the books ended up feeling like UNSC propaganda more than anything. This show, in my opinion, wisely made things more even-handed with Kwan being a protagonist while still being a rebel and by giving the UNSC a few more shades of gray to make their role in all this more morally ambiguous and harder to justify. That’s all good and I like the way they hand this tension for most of the episode, but towards the end when we get to Article 72, I think they overplayed their hand. The UNSC, even at its best, is worth scrutinizing but we can’t exactly have that conversation when they do something so over the line so early into the show. It makes for a decently tense climax if nothing else, but I’m not sure how we would walk something like that back and I feel like they’re gonna need to once the conflict goes from USNC vs Rebels to Everyone vs The Covenant.
If there’s one thing I genuinely wanted from a Halo television series, it’s for them to be willing to take risks; do something unexpected with new ideas because otherwise there’s no real reason for it to exist. The games aren’t going anywhere, the books are readily available on digital stores like Amazon, and if you want to watch something instead of playing it, there are options there too! I can absolutely see places where this could be improved and perhaps the rest of the series will only exacerbate those issues, but for such an anticipated opening gambit, I think they pulled it off and I’m genuinely excited to see where this is going!