It's certainly no Warthog accident, but perhaps not the Spielberg victory many had hoped for.
While we've seen countless poor film adaptations of various game universes over the years, there are small signs that the heavy cloud cover is slowly lifting. If nothing else, Sonic the Hedgehog, Detective Pikachu and Castlevania on Netflix have all proven that there are now writers, producers and directors willing to look a little more closely at source material before turning them into big blockbusters.
Series in particular have become popular, and Halo is almost going to be the start of a deluge of IPs being interpreted by Netflix, HBO and all the other heavy hitters in the class. Here we have Halo, a series that has been a long time in the making, had a leg up in several areas, and generally seemed like a bit of a conflicted project for a number of years. But here we are, a little over a week until the premiere, and now it's time to find out whether Halo continues this slightly positive streak, or whether we're, once again, left with a stinker.
First of all, it's important to note that Halo actually breaks with the otherwise fairly regular continuity of the universe. The series stands to interpret the same events, but otherwise has free narrative reins, so specific events can appear differently, characters can change, new threats can appear, and overall it seems like the people behind the series are entirely free to shape the universe to fit a different format. It's a good decision, because who wants to watch a 1/1 retelling of the same story, anyway? Instead, the Halo series is a very, very different interpretation of the same core character traits. There's a Halo ring out there, the Covenant is still a threat to humanity's safety, Dr. Halsey still shaped the super soldier John 117, or Master Chief. In that way, everything's the same, and there's no reason to think that going forward the series will throw a bigger spanner in the works than maybe just remixing here and there. If nothing else, I applaud the courage, because it keeps you a little closer to the edge of the scene when you're not quite sure what's going to happen.
We meet Chief, Cortana, Keyes, and all the other big names before the fall of the Reach planet, and before the Covenant really shows itself to be the extensive threat they end up posing, and before the Halo rings, and Forerunner artefacts in general, become broad, established knowledge. The first section is peripherally about the Covenant, but also about human rebels rebelling against the UNSC, and the very regular hierarchy, and in the middle of that we have Master Chief both carrying out orders, but also questioning more of his surroundings, and the very hierarchy itself.
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Fortunately, the first episode is well acted from start to finish, with Natascha McElhone in particular delivering an excellent performance as Halsey, oozing exactly the combination of ambition and cynicism that makes the character so intriguing. Pablo Schreiber also does his best, delivering a satisfying performance even if the helmet doesn't come off (yet). The point is that no one here is outright bad, though the series naturally tends to lean towards more soap opera-inspired science fiction at times. It gets away with it in broad strokes, though.
Overall, this first episode is pretty good to get started, and doesn't spend too much time establishing rules, factions and a background, so it's not an absolute requirement that you have deep knowledge of the universe beforehand. No it isn't a masterful introduction, but it's all set up pretty effectively, all things considered.
What is less favourable, however, are the action sequences, and associated CG animation. I didn't get the impression that either production was rushed, or that the budget was too small, and I still don't think it is. But one thing is for sure, and that is that the action sequences in the first episode, which mostly unfold at the beginning, are quite tedious. It's certainly not because it's objectively poorly set up, but rather probably because the people behind it have tried a number of different methods to be able to transfer the adrenaline of the games to scenes in a TV series, but that transfer doesn't really work. For example, there are several first-person sequences that really don't do anything special, and likewise the Brutes that Chief and company are up against are pretty poorly rendered, to the point where they look like old stand-ins from Halo 5: Guardians.
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This is obviously worrying, given that the Covenant, and generally effects-driven scenes, must and should be part of a science fiction series like Halo, but there's no need to get ahead of ourselves. Action plays a relatively small role during the first episode, and most of all the series manages to effectively put the pieces on the chessboard.
It's all a bit uneven, and it's crucial that the series manages to be consistent all the way through the first season, but for now this isn't rubbish - it's a relatively respectful interpretation of Bungie's (and now 343's) grand universe, and there should be enough reason to rejoice.