As with any video game to movie or TV adaptation, I went into Paramount+’s Halo series with some hesitation. The track record isn’t great, and with an IP like Halo, there’s enough content to justify a cinematic adaptation but requires careful and precise creative hands to make it believable. Thankfully, the Halo series after its premiere is shaping up to be a surprise.
These impressions are based on the first two episodes of the Halo series. Major spoilers will mostly be avoided, but I will talk about the show’s set-up and characters in some detail, specifically Master Chief.
The first and most important thing that’s evident in the Halo series is that it doesn’t actually follow the story of the games. This might come as a shock to anyone hoping for a 1:1 adaptation, but it kind of justifies its separation from the source material in interesting (and often controversial) ways.
All Halo material so far – be it the games, animated movies, books or comics – have all mostly followed one continuity. However, the Halo series distances itself from this universe by putting its own spin on things. Die-hard fans might find this jarring as most are accustomed to seeing one vision of Halo expanded into various media, but it became clear that the showrunners wanted to carve their own path and for a good reason.
In a somewhat twist of canon and non-canon, the Halo series places itself before the events of Halo: Reach. Here we meet a younger Master Chief and a more “diplomatic” UNSC who are still trying to wrap their heads around the threat that The Covenant actually poses on the galaxy. The series is pitted in a rather unusual position, though, as it sets up the expectation that we might see the events of Fall of Reach play out as the show continues. For the time being, there’s a lot of set-up happening and we have yet to see the beauty of the pay-off.
Through the UNSC, we actually meet a lot of familiar faces. Dr. Catherine Halsey, Captain Jacob Keyes, Miranda Keyes, Admiral Margaret Parangosky and more all make appearances, but the series firmly establishes the newcomers as the focus of the show – at least as far as the set-up goes. Alongside Pablo Schreiber who plays Spartan John-117 aka Master Chief, we meet new characters like the insurrectionist Kwan Ha Boo, Makee, Soren-066 and Kai-125, who receive a bit of the limelight here as the vessels for which the information of the lore can be dumped on to.
Right off the bat, the action sequences are fast-paced, entertaining and directed very well. The first scene introduces us to the more terrifying and skilled Covenant forces who, unlike the games, have a rather menacing presence to them in the series. We also see the series adopt the various guns and abilities from the games. I’d be lying if I didn’t at least giggle for joy a bit when I saw some game-accurate moves and weapons being used in the show.
The biggest praise I can give the Halo series so far is how they set up and establish both The Covenant and Master Chief. The Covenant are presented as highly skilled, brutish and intimidating. Sometimes, the games played them for laughs but in the series, they’re one step away from being alien variations of Michael Myers. Master Chief also takes the spotlight, though never away from the surrounding characters. Even as the “protagonist”, the series walks a very fine line between giving us too much of the Chief and too much of the side players. For the most part, there’s a good balance.
If you’re someone who enjoyed Halo 4‘s humanisation of Master Chief, then you’ll find a lot to love about the series’ multi-layered approach to John-117. He’s not just a military suit of armour hulking around and punching bad guys while saying quippy one-liners, but instead a fleshed out individual with emotions and stern beliefs. Again, this might alienate some fans who are used to seeing Master Chief in a very one-dimensional light (which isn’t exactly bad either), but the series wants to explore the inner turmoil of Master Chief and I found that absolutely terrific and full of potential.
I have to briefly give credit to Schreiber’s performance as Master Chief. Most of the time, he’s hidden behind his mask and armour, but he’s able to evoke emotions through movement and you can always tell what he’s feeling or thinking through subtle nods or body language. I imagine it must be incredibly difficult for an actor to bring a performance to life without seeing their faces most of the time, but Schreiber does an admirable job using his motions to convey emotions.
Another standout character is Dr. Halsey who is depicted as a rather conflicted individual with a ruthless demeanour. Natascha McElhone delivers a layered performance and through simple gestures, you get a good idea of what Halsey might be thinking without saying a word. On one hand, she’s playing a mother figure to the Spartans she helped create, but on the other, she’s a brilliant scientist who is clearly hiding secrets that leave other characters – and thus viewers too – no choice but to not really trust or rely on her.
Action is sparse in the Halo series which is a bit disappointing considering how high-octane the games are at all times, but the writers choose to take their time exploring each character and setting them up before dropping them in intense situations (for which there are few in the first couple of episodes). However, the pacing takes a hit when we’re left with quiet conversations that attempt to flesh out the characters. It doesn’t always work as the brunt of their development can easily be showed in action (a prime example being Master Chief). Nonetheless, there are still a handful of episodes to come that can remedy this.
The presentation of the Halo series certainly feels like the games, especially in the pilot episode. However, it quickly veers off in its own direction, at times bouncing between a space-faring adventure and a melodramatic space opera. These tonal shifts don’t always work except to give fans little cues about how great the games are now and then.
Another disappointing aspect is the CGI and dialogue. The Covenant are computer-generated and look a little cheap at times, especially when they’re out in full display in the sunlight. It takes a while to get used to the uneven CGI which can also be improved throughout the season. The dialogue can also feel stilted during exposition dumps, like robots dropping need-to-know information without much excitement. It also falls victim to the out-of-place military hoorah quips that might work better in the less serious tone of the games than the more grounded tone of the series.
The Halo series is off to a good start, but leaves a bit to be desired. The characters are established well and it’s great to see Master Chief explored in a more humanising light again. The decision to separate the show from the canon of the games and expanded universe was a clever move as it removes any pre-conceived expectations. That said, it also tries to emulate the games which starkly contrasts the more dramatic approach to the show’s tone. If you’re here as a fan or newcomer, you’ll either be pleasantly surprised or underwhelmed. We’ll just have to see how the rest of it unfolds.