Like most men in their early 30s, I have some level of attachment to Microsoft’s Halo franchise of video games and associated media. OK, a high level. I played the first game at age 11 on a friend’s Xbox and subsequently saved up the money to buy my own, just to spend time in the game’s elegant design. That whole summer of mowing lawns was totally worth it. I got Xbox Live in preparation for Halo 2, which my mom was kind enough to pick up for me on release day while I was at school. Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach all hold cherished memories, as do a lot of the books released alongside those initial few games that filled in the backstory of Master Chief, the quiet, imposing hero.
I invested a lot of time and built a lot of friendships running around those virtual battlefields, friendships I still maintain by playing Halo every so often. In 2012, Microsoft allowed original developer Bungie to leave its corporate umbrella in exchange for franchise rights, which have been generally run into the ground over the last decade by Microsoft’s in-house team at 343 Industries (a reference to one of the first game’s most iconic characters). The lore is incoherent and redundant, the games are constantly half-assed and incomplete, and the core focus of the overarching story has become a pretentious attempt at making Master Chief a tragic and conflicted character. Who cares about a sad super-soldier?
And really, “Who cares?” is kind of the core question I found myself asking while watching the premiere episode of Halo, the long, long, long-gestating filmed interpretation of the intellectual property — which arrives in the form of a streaming series on the Paramount+ service (premiering Thursday). There’s no need to go into details about the number of false starts or big names attached over the last 20 years. Other sites have done that better. It’s hard, though, to watch this new show and not wonder whether it’s 15 years too late to make the splash for which Microsoft and company are hoping. The past few years have seen gamers move on to new genres and stories. Those with a fondness for Halo will mostly hate this new take on the mythology while the uninitiated have much better things to watch. As for me, well … I guess I cared enough to feel excited about the ways in which the show succeeds and disappointed by the significantly more numerous ways it does not.
Paramount+ requested that reviewers not reveal details about what happens during the two episodes provided to press, so I’ll do my best not to, uh, reveal anything. Plot summaries really aren’t my bag anyway, but here’s the gist of the show: It’s 500 years in the future. The United Nations Space Command (UNSC) is a fascist military arm of a diverse but undefined Earth-based government. Outer colonies of humanity’s spacefaring civilization are rebelling against the iron grip of their distant overlords. To combat these “insurrectionists,” military scientist Doctor Halsey (Natascha McElhone) helped develop the SPARTAN program. These super-soldiers are physically augmented humans encased in tank-like body armor that can withstand basically any kind of weaponry used by humankind. This works out well until a mysterious group of aliens known as the Covenant shows up and starts wrecking humankind’s portion of space in search of ancient artifacts. The leader of the SPARTANS, Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber), is given a vision by one such artifact that sends him on a mission of self-discovery.
It’s an oddly generic approach to such a storied franchise. Compare this to the first game, which starts with Master Chief waking from cryosleep after his ship comes across the mysterious alien artifact Halo, a ring-world the Covenant is raiding. The first game picks up years into the war between humankind and the Covenant. This show, for whatever reason, focuses more on the conflict between the UNSC and the insurrectionists, with the Covenant an unknown enemy making its first inroads into our galaxy. Instead of exploring an alien world with an exciting and heroic protagonist, the show is more interested in deconstructing the nature of the premise and Master Chief himself, which is … not especially inspiring. Frankly, we’ve seen shows about human weapons turning against their masters. It’s the dullest possible approach to the source material, and the first episode of the show does nothing to pitch why this is the right direction for an adaptation of the material.
Fans who watched the first trailer for the show were taken aback by the perceived cheapness of such a big-budget show. The final product (sometimes) looks slightly better but not consistently enough to praise it. There is a frustrating amount of cost-cutting cutaways from aliens and violence (and some fairly lame CGI gore, too). In the games, the Covenant represents a great set of enemies for the player character to encounter, with different designs designating difficulty to defeat. Here, we only see one race of the Covenant prominently featured in the premiere’s action sequence. It’s lame and does not bode well for the show’s depiction of what is supposed to be a diverse group of aliens bound by a singular imperialistic religious faith. The point of the Covenant is that they’re not just one species and that they’ve excluded humanity for a reason to be revealed. Well, they haven’t excluded them in this particular alternate universe. (The trailer reveals that, OK?)
That’s not the only inexplicable change to the way the Halo universe works, but going into details is probably spoiling. Suffice to say, you see Captain Jacob Keyes (Danny Sapani) and his daughter, Miranda (Olive Gray), but they’re not as you knew them. To be clear, I’m not entirely opposed to new approaches to these characters. We do get to see Chief with his helmet off, for instance, which has never happened in the games. God bless Schreiber; he’s actually pretty great as Chief, but I wish the story he was in did justice to the character.
Again: Who cares? The story being told here isn’t particularly special besides the fact that it features visuals and lines of dialogue lifted directly from the games. Fans of the games want something specific, and this is far from faithful to the tone or content of the franchise. Even the iconic score by Marty O’Donnell is almost entirely sidestepped in favor of generic sci-fi action music. There’s no clear answer as to why Halo has at last found itself adapted into a nine-episode epic that promises to tell a story completely lacking that which sets apart its source material. It’s filled to the brim with inside jokes for fans who will largely hate it. Maybe it’s my fault I’m disappointed. I wanted to like it on its own terms, but this first episode has not given me reasons to hope.
Fifteen years ago, Halo could’ve been an event. From the look and feel of this first episode, it seems like just another IP thrown into the streaming mill, destined to ignite conversation for a few weeks (at best) before disappearing into the ether. Ah, well. At least it’s not as bad as Halo: Infinite.