I think that Halo, and I mean this in part as genuine praise but also to frame my disappointment, is the perfect show for a 12 year old little boy. Through two episodes it’s violent, but not gory. It has attractive performers, but is devoid of any real sense of sexuality. It has big ideas about duty and the value of life, but they’re all made easily digestible. It touches upon broad themes of the interplay of authority and individualism, but always keeps it light and exciting enough for the masses. There are head shots and exploding aliens galore, but it all seems somewhat safe.
I love the video game series that inspired Halo. I got the original Xbox on launch day and Halo: Combat Evolved was the first game I ever played on the system. My mind was blown to see the combat stylings of James Cameron’s Aliens applied to a seemingly limitless world. The quality of the action felt like a real game changer. I grew up on shooters from Doom, Hexen, and Quake on the PC to GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark on the console side. Halo: Combat Evolved was the first time the fun of shooter gaming started to really gain the storytelling feel of a movie.
Halo seems like a natural fit for a film or TV show. There’s an intricate backstory laid out across seven mainline games, various spinoffs, and expanded universe materials including comics, books, and animated films. The concept is an easy sell: a lone warrior, Master Chief, faces off against an alien armada in an effort to save the human race. Master Chief is the greatest of the Spartans, a team of child soldiers bred to protect humanity from the evil alien Covenant, but potentially also deployed for less noble purposes. It’s big, broad space opera storytelling.
The show gets a lot of things right. Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black, Den of Thieves) is solid casting as Master Chief. Necessarily, Halo makes the decision to de-mask Master Chief, John-117 as he’s also known, in the very first episode. It’s smart that rather than tease the moment for an entire season like The Mandalorian to simply get it over with and let audiences adjust to seeing the face behind the mask. It’s important emotionally as well. The games leave Master Chief as a bit of a cipher purposefully – he needs to be malleable enough to fit the emotions of players of the games. A TV show simply can’t operate that way. Schreiber brings the right amount of steely glower and emotional reserve to the role. It’s abundantly clear the character will be pulled towards a more expressive place and I think Schreiber is a solid vessel for that transformation.
Natasha McElhone (Solaris) steps into the role of the games’ Dr. Halsey. She brings a bit of impish spirit to the production which makes her scenes pop more than I had expected. Newcomer Yerin Ha does her best in the Baby Yoda role – the surviving child of an alien massacre that Master Chief must defend. She’s a strong performer, but the show does not seem too interested – at least thus far – in giving her the screen time to process the trauma her character undergoes in the show’s opening minutes. Bokeem Woodbine (Fargo) shows up in episode two as a former Spartan friend of John-117’s. As he is wont to do, Woodbine brings the show to life. He has a perpetual twinkle in his eye and his timing always seems to make his lines work just a bit better than they should on the page. Jen Taylor, who plays Master Chief advisor and frenemy Cortana in the games, will also play the part in the show but she has no substantial role in the episodes made available to critics.
The show has reasonably impressive production values. We’re in a strange place in the interplay of TV and film. By the pre-Game of Thrones standard, this would be an astonishing technical achievement. In the modern era, Halo feels a bit left behind by the production standards of the Marvel or Star Wars shows on Disney+. The costumes look reasonably realistic, but there are moments that feel off far too frequently. It’s abundantly clear that nearly everything has been shot on green screen. The action is occasionally quite compelling, but is marred by the moments where the budget falters. When Master Chief jumps – he’s a half ton, seven foot tall monster of a man – he moves as though divorced from gravity or weight. There are moments of fantastic extended action shots, only to see them followed by poor CGI. I cannot shake the feeling that the show’s ambition simply outstrips its budget.
The Covenant aliens are well designed – more menacing and expressive than in the games, but they never feel particularly real. The show has the courage to set its first major action set piece during the day, but that also stands to make the combatants look a bit more like, well, a video game. There’s a minecart on a wire sequence in the show’s second episode that’s extremely cool in concept… and feels like a video game level in execution.
I appreciate that Halo seems not only unashamed of its gaming origins, but is willing to lean into them. Unlike Uncharted which felt utterly dismissive of the core canon, Halo seems willing to dive into the deep end of Covenant political intrigue and evil human UNSC conspiracies from the jump. It is unabashedly nerdy and in love with the core text. The show winkingly dips into a first person perspective occasionally in the action complete with a game inspired HUD. The sound effects are ripped from the games, and the music from 24’s Sean Callery is happy to pull liberally from the game soundtracks.
I just wish I could shake the feeling of been there, done that. Maybe it’s a strike on the Halo story itself that what feels groundbreaking in the interactive form feels derivative on the screen. Perhaps if the production values were a bit more grandiose, I might feel more forgiving towards the rote story elements. I just wish it didn’t feel so damn safe. Nevertheless, I plan on sticking with the series. A great many shows have overcome a rough first few episodes to find later greatness.
Our interview coverage with Pablo Screiber, Yerin Ha, Jen Taylor, showrunner Steven Kane, and executive producer (and former Halo game designer) Kiki Wolfkill will run tomorrow. It seemed clear to me from those conversations that the team in charge is passionate about getting this right.
The first two episodes of Halo’s nine episode first season were screened at SXSW ‘22.