Directors: Jonathan Liebesman, Otto Bathurst, Roel Reiné, Jessica Lowry
Writers: Steven Kane, Kylie Killen, Justine Juel Gillmer, Silka Luisa, Richard Robbins
Cast: Pablo Schreiber, Shabana Azmi, Natascha McElhone, Charlie Murphy, Yerin Ha, Bokeem Woodbine
Cinematographers: Karl Walter Lindenlaub, Eric Kress, Ed Wild
Editors: Dan Briceno, Aaron Marshall, Geoff Ashenhurst, Maxime Lahaie
Streaming on: Voot
Halo, the video game series, is one of the few reasons I’ve been an Xbox loyalist. In fact, one of the main reasons I switched from PC to Console gaming was Halo 3 when it came out on Xbox 360 in the late 2000s. So expect some amount of video game leanings (or bias) when it comes to this review of Halo, which recently concluded on Voot.
Halo’s first season was ambitious – set in a parallel ‘Silver Timeline’ as compared to the games, its storyline can be considered almost a prequel to the games. There’s a war being waged between humans and the alien mix of races known as ‘The Covenant’. In the mix are Artifacts, AI, cloning, rebellion, politics and some ‘ancient and chosen ones’ mumbo-jumbo.
Season one’s first episode is a great powerplay (to use the cricketing term) and gets the ball rolling on what the show’s true potential could be, very quickly. Humanity’s political landscape, along with the insurrection against the UNSC (a space-faring UN like government) is quickly established on the distant, desert planet Madrigal. Most of the insurrectionists at Madrigal believe that “the Covenant threat” is UNSC propaganda – until, of course, a very brutal attack by the aliens hits home. All is lost until Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and his team of Spartans land at the base and hammer the Covenant forces, who have all but wiped out the humans in the rebel base. When the fight begins and the Spartans land, you realise you are watching a true-blue Halo (and by extension, a video game) show. Unfortunately, that is both Halo’s weakness and its greatest strength.
Halo is what I call a video-game adaptation in denial. The rest of the season’s plot veers jarringly away from what makes the game franchise’s story arc so much fun. We are stuck following Master Chief/John’s journey as he discovers the first of ancient ‘artifacts’ on Madrigal, which he seems somehow connected to, and then takes a journey of discovery about his true past (Kurt Russell’s Soldier, anyone?). Master Chief/John has also taken his helmet off by now, much to loyal Halo fans’ chagrin.
Subplots involve the stories of Makee (Charlie Murphy) – a special human child raised by the Covenant to help activate the artifacts – and of Kwan (Yerin Ha), the sole survivor of the attack on Madrigal’s base. One can see that the showrunners were expanding the Halo ‘Silver Timeline’ universe, giving it more depth and characters to root for beyond the ones we are familiar with from the games. However, the familiar characters are the only ones you perhaps end up caring about. These are limited to Natascha McElhone’s Dr Halsey and Jen Taylor’s Cortana, who incidentally reprises her video game role. It helps that both McElhone and Taylor deliver rock-solid performances because the rest of the show is bogged down by unclear motivations, bad character arcs and middling performances.
Let’s be honest here, what was Shabana Azmi (playing Admiral Margaret Parangosky) even doing there?
That said, when the show gets going, it is an absolute blast to watch. From the Spartan takedown of the Covenant in Madrigal, the expansive UNSC vs. Covenant fight on Eridanus II for the keystone, the Spartans vs. Master Chief in Allegiance to the battle in the finale (Xbox 1 level planetary CGI aside); Halo is at its best when it embraces its video-game roots, instead of its future-space-fantasy side. In those moments, the show’s scope is grand and its fights visceral. That’s when it is winning, not when we are stuck watching drug-laced visions of a temperamental child searching for purpose.
While I understand that Halo Season 1 needed to build upon a universe and build up to a Season 2 that’s grander in scope, it is abundantly clear that the show is at its best when it embraces that it is, in fact, Halo – one of the most popular FPS games in the history of gaming. As a show, it need not be Game of Thrones in space, nor does it need to be a self-reflective character journey like Logan. It just needs to be the best possible cinematic version of the game.
While it may be unevenly paced, occasionally skippable and inconsistent in its character (and plot) motivations, it does deliver enough ‘hell yeah!’ moments to tide audiences over while a (hopefully) more polished, grander and ‘true-to-the-core’ Season 2 arrives.