Spoilers follow for the Halo premiere. If you want to go in blindly, click away now!
This may not be what you expected. The TV series Halo doesn’t start with its figurehead Master Chief – but with a girl in a town.
War is brewing in the dusty bowl of Madrigal. A group of rebels are at odds with the militaristic arm of Earth’s government – the UNSC – and its Spartans. To the downtrodden populace of Madrigal, these six-foot-tall soldiers are bogeys; Killing machines designed only to follow orders and destroy everything in their path. As one rebel puts it in Daft-Punk style, they are: “Faster. Stronger. Smarter.” The propaganda pumped into the Outer Colonies may call them “mankind’s finest weapon,” but for much of the galaxy they are there to keep the UNSC’s iron grip tight on their throats.
But it’s not the Spartans they should be worried about. The girl from the opening scene, Kwan Ha (played by Yerin Ha, the show’s most consistent performer at this early stage), has plans to fly away from the rock she calls home. In doing so, she unknowingly stumbles into the invasion of Madrigal by an alien race known as the Covenant.
It’s a bold start for the Halo series, starting without the video game’s iconic main character, instead opting to build its universe, story, and accompanying cast first. Putting us in Kwan’s shoes, the Covenant is deftly portrayed as a threat as it desperately struggles to survive the onslaught of plasma jets and debris.
Unfortunately, the daring opening gambit is let down by the staging. The first action sequences are peppered with amateurish editing and cinematography, which is further toned down by flimsy CGI. Couple that with tame gunfights where the fighters move so slowly they might as well be underwater, and it doesn’t make a good first impression.
The sets also look cheap, both on Madrigal and later in ships. Some costumes and sand-covered environments resemble a well-polished fan film at best. At worst, they look ripped out of Power Rangers. But then John-117 (Pablo Schreiber) comes along and saves the day in more ways than one.
Ring the changes
John-117, better known as Master Chief, is not like the other Spartans. After clearing out the Alliance and examining their ship, his inquisitive nature leads him to a mysterious artifact. Far from being a faceless animal, the relic offers glimpses of John’s visions: a happy childhood, a family, a dog, laughter. These serve as a catalyst for the Spartan to challenge the UNSC’s orders and act as a guardian angel for Kwan, a loose thread the UNSC is desperate to tie together – and neutralize.
It’s no coincidence that the best scenes from the premiere show the human side of John. As John shares a moment with Madrigal’s only survivor, Kwan, aboard a UNSC ship, a real warmth develops as the bond between the two grows. Their dynamic is a bright spot, and one that Halo should explore further in future episodes.
This high quality is enhanced and contrasted by the stilted, awkward scenes featuring various top-flight UNSC horns. The “brilliant” scientist Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone) and UNSC Commander Miranda Keyes (Olive Gray) each have their own goals in investigating the Alliance, but so far they lack any real function outside of providing intelligence. The premiere too often falters when the pair deliver lines without real conviction on sparse-looking sets.
Thankfully, the episode picks up steam again when the interests of Halsey, Keyes and other high-ranking officers align – with the Master Chief in their sights. At the end of the premiere, John disobeys orders and flees with Kwan, although it would have been more satisfying to see this act of rebellion a little later in the series. Master Chief, who immediately rebels against his puppeteers, feels a little undeserved instead.
Still, it’s hard to have Master Chief as an all-powerful fugitive. But the show’s momentum away from John-117 is worrying, as the UNSC subplots are already in danger of flattening out. Thankfully, the brief glimpse we get from the Alliance of their floating, vine-covered city of High Charity is far more intriguing.
Arch of the Covenant
Yes, there is a human working with the alliance. Makee (Charlie Murphy) clearly holds a position of power within the alien race when she converses with a high and powerful Alliance prophet. She’s a mysterious hook that draws Halo die-hards and curious sci-fi fans alike. Their appearance, while fleeting, is enough to solidify the aliens as more than just one-dimensional villains. A job well done.
Like the Covenant tease, Halo’s approach to video game references and Easter Eggs shows real restraint. Marvel and Star Wars should take notes.
The frantic beeping of Master Chief’s armor as it weakens will be instantly familiar to those who spent their formative years on the Xbox Live battlegrounds of Blood Gulch and Ascension, for example. Similarly, the gentle swell of the series’ iconic choral music is used only once and hits at just the right time to turn a good scene into a great one. These moments come sparingly and are well used. That’s thanks to the wise creative decision to intersperse these as storytelling devices, not cheap parlor tricks designed to overwhelm audiences with the low-hanging fruits of nostalgia.
Aside from clumsy and gimmicky first-person sequences, the nods and winks to Master Chief’s video game past never take away from what appears on screen. This is, as is clear from the start, a whole new take on the Halo universe. It’s a creative decision that might leave a passionate segment of the fanbase reluctant, but the commitment to going all-in on remixing the franchise is commendable.
In terms of the premiere’s story setup, the first hour of Halo did its job admirably. John and Kwan have fled, the UNSC’s facade is crumbling, and secrets have been exposed on the Alliance side. Each offers just enough mystery and intrigue to keep audiences returning for a second helping of Paramount Plus, a new streamer in dire need of a killer app in a crowded market.
The Halo series should take a page from the Book of Spartans, though. It needs to be faster, with fewer UNSC scenes to slow things down to a crawl. It needs to be stronger and focus on the young relationship between Kwan and John-117. It has to get smarter. Better use of camera shots, sets and CGI masks low production values. Once those are cleaned up, Master Chief has a clear shot at ending what will hopefully be the first fight of many – but perhaps not in the way some might have expected. After all, this is a story about Master Chief and the girl he’s trying to save.
New episodes of Halo stream weekly every Thursday on Paramount Plus.