‘Halo’ Is Combat Evolved, Story Still Convoluted (TV Review)

Since development as a series was announced way back in 2013, Halo has miraculously kept Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer. There was never a chance The Beard would direct but keeping the live-action version of one of the biggest video game franchises of all time at Amblin Entertainment was enough to keep yours truly hopeful. Now that the 26th-century sci-fi tale has arrived on Paramount+, home of Star Trek, is there enough streaming space in the universe for another hero who (mostly) keeps his helmet on? Time will tell, but who needs Grogu when an assault by the Covenant boasts one of the most brutal openings in television. Suit up, Master Chief, you’re gonna need a weapon.

Set in the year 2552, just before the events of the first Halo game, the mining planet of Madrigal’s residents are considered insurrectionists in the eyes of the UNSC, aka space marines (Clearly, these Madrigals have no relation to Disney’s Encanto, as candles do not seem to supply the natives with powers of any kind). These water miners are of the scrappy yet woefully unprepared variety which has populated countless space operas. Fitted in raggedy brown clothes with weapons and vehicles which are old even by 21st century standards, when a squadron of Covenant Elites (twelve-foot tall alien baddies) land on their planet to search for a relic called… “the relic,” the slaughter of many Madrigals is a given.

I did not expect the violence and brutality in this pilot episode’s opening act (Paramount supplied the first 2 episodes). Fans of Halo will rightly assume this assault is ripe for the Spartans to arrive and kick butt. For those unaware, Spartans are super soldiers that have been genetically modified to be stronger yet less emotionally attached. The Master Chief, the green-armored savior who’s been many a player’s ultimate power fantasy, is, naturally, the best of the bunch.

Before the Spartans’ arrival, though, showrunner Steve Kane (The Last Ship) doesn’t hold back. Limbs are torn apart, blood is splattered, and even the innocent are not safe. The loss of life was so jarring as a palate cleanser that the action that followed was genuinely tense. I was sure there would be a least one lone survivor, but how this scene piles on mass amounts of carnage was a welcome change for most sci-fi of late.

Even cooler are the fight scenes between the Spartans and the Covenant (in Destiny 2, they are the Fallen, in Halo Infinite – the Banished, you get it). These feature a mash-up of hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, and explosions, edited with a confidant clarity. There’s a judicious amount of “video gamey” shots that pop too. The POV of a soldier with the game’s beloved MA5c assault rifle mimicking a first-person shooter should induce eye rolls, but the frantic movement keeps such added features well-balanced. Hands down: it’s a fun way to begin a series about gun-toting space marines and energy sword-wielding aliens.

The Master Chief, also known as John “117,” is played by Orange Is the New Black‘s Pablo Schreiber. At first, his voice was kind of off-putting as Steve Downes has been the guy under the helmet for the past two decades (Last year’s Halo Infinite proved to be not only one of the best of the series but one of Downes’ strongest performances). Yet, on his own terms, Schreiber brings a vulnerability to the role, as well as confusion to a lesser degree. As a result of an overly used flashback structure, John is trying to piece together his past. It’s generic, but Schreiber mostly makes it work.

John is more interesting when verbally sparring off his estranged pal, Soren “066,” played by the always engaging Bokeem Woodbine. Woodbine’s a reliable performer whose very presence can elevate material (*cough* Total Recall). Spending time with Soren and his family for the bulk of episode 2 is an excellent contrast to the war onslaught that permeates the premiere. The pilot ends on a cliffhanger, so being able to start up episode two right away was a blessing.

The plot of the Halo franchise spans across seven mainline games, multiple novels, comic books, and now a live-action television series. I’ve only played the games, so I’m not quite sure if certain elements are totally exclusive to the Paramount+ outing, but I’d wager the introduction of a female human raised by the Covenant, Makee (Charlie Murphy), is new to the lore. In the game, players exclusively kill aliens, so from a financial perspective having one of the main antagonists played by an actor certainly helps keep the budget in check. It’s good news then that Makee’s own struggles among the aliens works as a kind of mirror to John’s flashbacks awakening. Visually, her sections in the first two episodes feel like an homage to Attack of the Clones’ planet Kamino. Effectively highlighting the utter strangeness of the religiously obsessed Covenant at their secret base, High Charity. The art direction emphasizes eternally high white petals as walls, and I dug it.

The Covenant might not be cloners like their Kamino doppelgänger but the earthborn Dr. Halsey is. Halsey (Natascha McElhone) created the Spartans. As a personality, she follows the 21st-century tradition of brilliant but morally compromised scientists that doom many civilizations (See also last month’s Horizon Forbidden West‘s Elisabet Sobeck). Jen Taylor voiced both Dr. Halsey and her A.I. clone Cortana in the game. Taylor will also be voicing Cortona on the show, although two episodes in, that version of Cortana has yet to debut.

Clones, A.I., space marines, aliens, and artifacts. There is a lot to unpack. Too much? For a coherent plot, yes. For the kind of mindless sci-fi rabble, one can tune out most of? It’s fine.

To ground the Master Chief’s struggles beyond the conspiracies between the humans and aliens is lone survivor teen Kwan Ah (Yerin Ha). The two have decent protector/kid chemistry, and I’m interested to see where her story goes, but alas, she doesn’t seem to know The Force. Kwan is our “regular person” point of entry POV who fears the Covenant but ain’t a fan of the warmongering UNSC either.

2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved debuted on the original Xbox four years after Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers satirized the military complex onscreen. At the time, quite a few filmgoers didn’t get the satirical joke of Verhoeven’s film, instead taking the CGI bugfest as a literal pro-fascist screed. Halo’s space marines were voiced with similar gong-ho enthusiasm. Their “Attention, soldier! Oorah!” speak was at least partially leaning into the humor Verhoeven executed so effectively.

Paramount+’s series takes a more straight-faced approach to its military characters. On the one hand, we’re in an era ripe to criticize how a powerful space army could exploit defenseless planets’ citizens. We may root for the Master Chief as the aforementioned power fantasy, but there’s no denying the creation of the Spartans was rarely, if ever, about protecting regular people. After the umpteenth conversation about winning the war and decoding alien tech had transpired, I was longing for the “Would you like to know more?” snark of Starship Troopers.

Two episodes in I’m definitely enjoying Halo as a kind of big, dumb, space opera. I fear the convoluted plot will only get more convoluted, but when the characters shut their traps and make with the action, I’m in geek heaven.

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