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  • 24/03/2023

Halo Review: Paramount+'s Video Game Adaptation Is Star Wars with Headshots

Let me state for the record that I am not a gamer. The extent of my experience with the Halo video game franchise is playing the original game against my friend Jay on multiplayer on his Xbox when we were in middle school (and getting absolutely smoked by him every time). A fond memory, but not one that left me with any attachment to Halo's characters or storyline. I went into Paramount+'s TV series adaptation pretty cold. The show couldn't let me down by not being what I wanted from a Halo adaptation; I didn't know a Covenant from a Cortana. But it could let me down by servicing fans of the game to the exclusion of newcomers like myself. Fortunately, writers Kyle Killen and Steven Kane keep it accessible by borrowing liberally from established sci-fi tropes. Halo is shamelessly derivative, but it is fun to watch. It's like a TV-MA version of Star Wars. It's a Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster show that feels more like it came from his pal George Lucas.

The plot is pretty simple and easy to grasp. There's a war going on between the human government, the UNSC, and an alien organization known as the Covenant. At the same time, people are rebelling against the UNSC on the fringes of the empire because the UNSC extracts natural resources from their planets and gives nothing in return. The UNSC's main weapon against the Covenant and the rebels is a unit of supersoldiers called Spartans, who are like space RoboCops. They are nearly indestructible killing machines who are given "pellets" to suppress their emotions.

The action starts when Covenant soldiers descend on Madrigal, a Tatooine-like planet that's rebelling against the UNSC, in search of a George Lucas-ian MacGuffin that is the key to unlocking the mysteries of ultimate power (you know how that boilerplate sci-fi & fantasy plot stuff goes). They go about killing everyone in the town, but they're interrupted by the Spartans, led by Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber, a talented actor who gives soul to a shallow character). The only survivor of the battle is Kwan (Yerin Ha), the teenaged daughter of a resistance general. Master Chief finds the artifact the Covenant was looking for, and when he touches it, it starts glowing blue and shoots out energy and he has a vision of a family, which is obviously a memory of his childhood that was suppressed during his supersoldier training. Touching the artifact changes him. He starts to develop a conscience. When he's ordered to kill Kwan, he goes rogue, taking the headstrong girl with him as he goes on the run. Meanwhile, Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natasha McElhone), the architect of the Spartan program, sees losing control of Master Chief as an opportunity to implement her new, even more unethical innovation, an artificial intelligence program called Cortana.


Halo Review: Paramount+'s Video Game Adaptation Is Star Wars with Headshots


at Paramount+

Halo commits the sin of reminding the viewer of a similar, better show. It's impossible to watch Halo without comparing it to The Mandalorian, Disney+'s flagship Star Wars show. They have nearly identical setups. Master Chief, like Mando (Pedro Pascal), is an amoral, emotionally stunted interplanetary warrior whose face is hidden by a metal helmet. He reconnects with his humanity and chafes at an assignment to hurt an innocent child (in The Mandalorian, it's Baby Yoda; in Halo, it's a teenaged girl with a crust punk haircut), and puts himself in danger to protect her. But Halo is inferior to The Mandalorian in every way. Halo removes Master Chief's helmet at least once per episode, because it lacks The Mandalorian's confidence that Mando's emotions can be communicated even with his helmet on, and has a MacGuffin and a kid to protect, which seems unsophisticated after The Mandalorian ingeniously combined them both into one irresistible puppet. But Halo's similarity to The Mandalorian actually doesn't bother me that much, because it's telling an archetypal story whose familiarity is part of its appeal. The Mandalorian didn't invent the taciturn warrior learning to be a caring protector, either.

Other Star Wars bites are less forgivable. Bokeem Woodbine (who is as great in this as he is in everything else) plays Soren, an old friend of Master Chief's from the Spartan academy who now runs a lawless planet for scoundrels where Master Chief takes Kwan for help. He's so clearly modeled after Lando Calrissian that Billy Dee Williams should get royalties. The warring interstellar factions are all variations on the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. And some of the aliens have bladed weapons made of light — monstrous melee weapons called energy swords in the Halo games — that suddenly appear and disappear as they wield them. They have lightsabers, is what I'm saying.

But ultimately, what pushes Halo from being mediocre to good is its action. The pilot opens with a thrilling 12-minute setpiece that's tense all the way through. Sometimes the camera cuts to Master Chief's point-of-view from inside his helmet, mimicking the feel of a first-person shooter. The editing is tight and the CGI looks expensive. The action doesn't feel like it was made by a bored animator on a computer; it feels like it was made by someone who knows how to shoot a fight scene (Director Otto Bathurst previously helmed the first season of Peaky Blinders, a show that does stylized grit better than most others).

Whether this adaptation will satisfy Halo fans who have waited 20 years for — and Paramount+ hopes it will; a second season has already been ordered — this is not for me to say. But as someone who generally enjoys sci-fi action shows that I don't need to watch with Wikipedia open to understand, Halo is heaven. It's more fun than playing the actual game (because I'm bad at it).

Premieres: Thursday, March 24 on Paramount+ (Weekly episode releases)Who's in it: Pablo Schreiber, Natasha McElhone, Yerin Ha, Charlie Murphy, Bokeem WoodbineWho's behind it: Writers/EPs Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders), EP Steven Spielberg For fans of: Halothe video game franchise, Star Wars, sci-fi combatHow many episodes we watched: 2 out of 9

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