For a while now, video game adaptations have been teetering one the brink of not being shit with the latest attempt of the Sonic The Hedgehog sequel speeding through the Green Hill Zone in order to arrive at the Actually Not That Bad At All Zone in a state of measured confidence. However, aiming to change that is yet another gaming icon who, despite help from such visionaries as Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp, missed out on a big screen adventure nearly a decade ago. I am, of course, referring to Master Chief who’s mirrored faceplate has been the poster boy for gaming phenomenon Halo since its inception and anyone familiar with his pixelated adventures knows that if he’s denied from finishing a mission, he’ll just achieve it some other way. Thus Paramount+ arrived on the streaming scene with a long awaited Halo themed TV show – but has the wait been a little too long and does the might of the Spartans still pack the punch it once did?
The year is 2552 and the continuing tensions between the militaristic UNSC and bands of insurrectionists who hope to shake off an oppressive rule takes a brutal, unforeseen turn when a mining outpost on the planet Madrigal is attacked and all but destroyed by the Covenant, an alliance of multiple species of alien who believe that humanity should be scraped of the shoe of the universe with a tissue and chucked into the bin of extinction.
As the Elites, the mandible-faced special forces unit of the Covenant, slaughter everyone they can find, their kill-mission hits a snag with the arrival with Sliver Team, a unit comprised of the Spartans, the UNSC’s armored, superhuman soldiers and as led by Petty Officer John – 117 (aka. The Master Chief) the Elites are eventually subdued.
The only survivor of the outpost is Kwan Ha, the teenage daughter of the Insurgent leader and she’s whisked away by Master Chief after he has a funny turn after coming into contact with something called a Forerunner keystone, an artifact that is of great interest to his bosses.
However, the flash of previously blocked memories John – 117 experienced seems to have shaken his abilities to follow orders without question as the more he chats to Kwan Ha, the more he finds he’s not exactly cool with the UNSC’s methods of maintaining order.
This is reflected back on Reach, a UNSC colony, where the head of the Spartan programme, Miranda Keyes openly questions the motives of both their leaders and her estranged mother to her father, Captain Jacob Keyes, but while the Covenant leaders get word of this “demon” that cut a swathe through the Elites on Madrigal, the Master Chief in question goes from questioning orders to outright defying them when the powers that be decide that the survival of Kwan Ha is more trouble than it’s worth…
As an unabashed fan of the original Halo trilogy back in the day, I belatedly approached the series with a mixture of genuine excitement and understandable caution – after all, Halo 3 was released way back in 2007 and subsequent releases hadn’t really caught gamers imaginations as much as that original trilogy. Also, even though video game movies in general were making a push away from being rubbish, the recent Netflix Resident Evil show was a timely (and infuriatingly boring) reminder that we weren’t exactly out of the woods yet – however, thanks to an extended opening action sequence that essentially plays out as one long, mouth watering slab of fan wish fulfilment, my nostalgia for all things Halo-y.
We’re essentially introduced into a world where, instead of being the force for good we all assumed, the UNSC is pumping out some major Starship Toopers vibes by having tilhis military force throw its weight around in a fascist nature that might make the Empire from Star Wars want to check that someone hasn’t been copying their homework. As these ragtag Insurgents go about their dusty business while mining for resources (and while Kwan Ha and he friends gorage for natural growing drugs) they are attack by some noticably game-accurate Elites. One thing video game adaptations tend to ignore is that sometimes, weapons, tech and craft are just as iconic as the main characters, but that obviously isn’t going to be an issue with Halo as right off the bat, we get plasma rifles and energy swords that work, sound and look exactly as they do in the games – and then the Spartans land and by God, it’s beautiful.
But among the explosions, gore (Blomkamp’s past fingerprints are realised by the messy effect these exotic weapons have on human physiology) and gorgeously rendered Spartan armour, you get the creeping suspicion that the episode might not be able to keep up the momentum as the all the fan pleasing detail such as frequent POV shots from Master Chief’s HUD and his force field powering up with that satisfying humming sound, start to waver once the actual plot starts to kick in.
Yes, the show runners and episode director Otto Bathurst (previously responsible for a few episodes of Peaky Blinders and the Taron Egerton Robin Hood movie) make sure that we’re dropped thrillingly into a mostly faithful pre-game world, but every time we switch focus to the human machinations, the tone takes on a soulless feel that can’t match the action sequences and any time Master Chief isn’t on screen, attention spans start to fray. Complaints that Halo is merely riffing on the same, devout warrior encased in armour stuff Lucasarts nailed so impressively with The Mandalorian aren’t entirely without merit as John – 117 finds his enhanced eyes opened by both the effects of the gnarly effects of the Forerunner keystone and Kwan Ha’s outraged questioning while keeping his helmet firmly on – but then he goes full Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd and removes it at the end of the episode to show trust. It’s a moment that admittedly works thematically regardless of fan outrage, but doesn’t feel particularly earned so early on in the season, even though Orange Is The New Black’s Pablo Schreiber does good work helping to make Master Chief a rounded character.
So, a rousing opening opening and some air-punching fan service gives way to oddly some sterile scheming and plotting (mostly from Natascha McElhone’s scheming scientist), and a rather extreme end of episode twist that sees a rogue John – 117 facing down hundreds of his own troops (so early?); but there’s still way more time and a whole universe to uncover yet.
After all, we’re only one episode in and noticably bereft of the hourglass figure of A.I. Cortana, the gibbering Grunts and an actual Halo, but the sight of an unrestrained Master Chief and his fellow Spartans ploughing through Elites like someone’s playing the original game on an easy setting is more than enough to carry the first episode through any Rocky patches – for now.