Title: Halo (2022) Creators: Steve Kane, Kyle Killen Stars: Pablo Schreiber, Natascha McElhone, Yerin Ha, Bokeem Woodbine, Jen Taylor, Burn Gorman
This review is based on the two first episodes of Halo, which premiers on Paramount+ March 24th.
The Halo video game series is one of the best-known and revered franchises among gamers everywhere. Barging onto the console scene more than 20 years ago with the classic Halo: Combat Evolved, it quickly earned its place in pop culture legend. More games followed, building on the simple story in the original game to become a deep and evolved fictional science fiction universe.
The story of the faceless Master Chief, the Spartan super-soldiers and their fight against the alien Covenant and the parasitic Flood has been adapted to various media. But now, after years in the making, a full-fledged, and by the looks of it, extremely expensive series is about to premiere on the Paramount+ streaming service. The trailers looked great, and the cast and crew really sold it in the press conferences. So why was I suddenly skeptical when sitting down to watch the two first episodes? Was the dreaded “curse of the video game adaptations” about to strike?
The curse I’m referring to comes from the fact that most adaptations of video games into films and series try and fail to evoke the feeling of the games themselves. To be sure, the genre of video game adaptations has received a bad rap, and it can be argued that much of this is because of the German director Uwe Boll and his abysmal films. But still, most of the time, when someone tells you they like this or that game-based film or series, it will often be followed by “…but it’s a guilty pleasure of mine!”
Fun fact: The German filmmaker Uwe Boll is notorious for his video game adaptation and severe lack of actual filmmaking skills. His 2005-film Alone in the Dark is considered one of the worst films ever made, and his zombie horror House of the Dead used low-res clips from the actual game, edited into the film’s action scenes. The ill-tempered Uwe Boll once challenged his critics to a boxing match without first letting them know that he was an accomplished boxer.
But I’m happy to say that the curse has been lifted, at least when it comes to Halo. Within the first ten minutes of the first episode, it was clear that Halo was something else. Here, the universe takes center stage without letting the many nods and references to the games overshadow the story. This looks and feels like Halo, as it should, but the series also stands well on its own and is accessible to people who have not played the games.
The story starts on a poor mining planet where rebellious separatists fight for independence from the United Nations Space Command. The site is soon attacked by aliens from the mysterious Covenant, leading to a brutal slaughter, until Spartan super-soldiers led by Master Chief (played by Pablo Schreiber) arrive to intervene. The action here is spectacular and surprisingly violent, and although some of the CGI can be spotty in a few places, these scenes still put me on the edge of my seat.
With the Covenant forces dealt with, the Spartans leave to find the aliens’ spaceship. They are followed by the only civilian survivor, young Kwan Ha (played by Yerin Ha), who witnessed her father’s death at the hands of a Covenant soldier. At the alien ship’s landing site, the Spartans find a cave entrance and a strange artifact that, after being touched by Master Chief, gives him strange visions of long-suppressed memories. This wakes the super-soldier up from his numbed conditioning and sets him and Kwan on the run from their former allies.
The creators of this series have had a lot of material to work with. After over 20 years of Halo games, books and other media, the Halo universe has grown and spawned a hugely intricate backstory. And a franchise as iconic as this comes with an eager fandom watching and dissecting every detail. It must have been nerve-wracking for the show’s creators to decide which liberties to take in bringing the franchise to the screen.
So let’s rip the band-aid off quickly: Master Chief takes off his helmet in this series, and I think that was a good decision. As far as I know, the main reason he does not remove the helmet in the games is that it gives him a certain degree of anonymity and gives the player a blank slate to project themselves upon in the “first-person shooter.” Later, it became “a thing” with the Halo franchise: you never see Master Chief’s face, even in situations everyone else has their helmets off. But there is, as far as I know, no in-universe reason why the protagonist never removes his helmet (it’s not some The Mandalorian-like creed), and one would assume that he wouldn’t wear it to the dinner table or in bed. So, in a series like this, you will see Master Chief without his helmet and armor. There are other changes from the games’ continuity too, and events have been moved around in the timeline to tell the story better. This, I think, was a good decision on the show’s creator’s part.
That leads to the big question here: With Master Chief’s helmet removed, is Pablo Schreiber good in the role? He is. The almost two-meter-tall Canadian actor has the build to play the part while at the same time projecting humanity and vulnerability that fits with the character’s role in the evolving storyline. Will his portrayal of Master Chief divide the fanbase? Absolutely. But I liked him in the role. And young Yerin Ha, tiny in comparison to the hulking protagonist, worked very well as a sparring partner in the story as it unfolded. There are plenty of calmer moments and a surprising amount of character-building in these first two episodes alone, making me very optimistic that this won’t devolve into yet another mediocre video game adaptation.
Halo is great, spectacular even, and based on the first two episodes that I’ve watched, it has the potential to be the best video game adaptation I have ever seen (not that the competition is especially fierce). And even though the source material is used as a guide, it never feels forced, and the story is what matters. There are plenty of references and nods to the games, of course, but it never gets over-used in the two episodes I had access to. You can easily enjoy Halo without ever having played a single game in the franchise.
With Halo, the curse of the video game adaptations is broken. This spectacular sci-fi shines in a genre otherwise marred by mediocrity. It does borrow heavily from other science fiction shows at times, but what science fiction doesn’t? From its story, characters, mysteries and to that iconic choir music in the title – I eagerly await more, and I’m happy to hear that a second season is already confirmed!