At E3 2013 Steven Spielberg announced he and Microsoft were planning to adapt Halo into a TV show. Nine games, nine years, a network switch, and plethora of memes later, and Halo is finally premiering. The Paramount Plus show debuted two episodes at SXSW on Monday ahead of its broader streaming premiere on March 24.
From the beginning, the talent involved has resisted calling it an exact adaptation, preferring instead to think of it as a world built off the framework of the Halo games: an interstellar war between the religious aliens known as the Covenant and the human United Nations Space Command. In the middle of all that is Spartan soldier Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and insurrectionist Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), who both find themselves at odds with the war waging around them.
With just two episodes screened to critics it’s hard to know just what Halo hopes to be at this point, particularly as the franchise is undergoing its own self-assessment. But there are certainly plenty of threads to pull at in the first two outings of the show. For instance:
Is it Halo or not Halo?
Halo is like an adaptation of a video game series as handled by someone who played a few levels of it once in college. Or maybe he just watched his friend play, he can’t quite remember. There’s definitely a guy in recognizable green armor, and he definitely fights some aliens, but beyond that it’s a bit of a blur. There’s some kind of relic, it may or may not have something to do with a ring world, which might also be a weapon. It’s really hard to say.
This is a show for people who have, at best, a passing familiarity with the games. There’s little to no actual explanation of who or what is going on, so you better know the Master Chief and the Covenant. But it’s also not a show for people to know too much, because otherwise you might get confused why none of this seems to match up with the story of the games that have been released over the last 20 years. It’s a very tight window.
In other words, if your conception of Halo is a guy in green armor doing space shit; congratulations, you finally have your Halo show. —Austen Goslin
More aliens, please
Like my colleagues have already suggested, it’s quite hard to take in these first two episodes of Halo and find a reason to keep going. Even for those who, like myself, are more than willing to sign up for 40 minutes to an hour of anything as long as there’s some cool-looking space shit involved. Unfortunately, the space shit in Halo? Sub-par. Not very Legendary. A real overheated plasma pistol, if you catch my drift.
What’s particularly amusing, though, is how dedicated they are to making Halo’s armor and aliens look as game-accurate as possible in environments that take none of the imagination on display in Bungie’s games. It’s all gunmetal and concrete corridors, alongside a few crowded space station sets that look like they were cribbed together from The Expanse’s leftovers. Juxtaposed against this, the Master Chief’s impeccably recreated armor looks extremely funny, and the Prophet Mercy looks outlandishly cartoonish, like the Annoying Orange himself just appeared on an otherwise normal TV show. Elites have also been slightly redesigned to appear bulkier, like mandibled linebackers and less like gaunt warriors. It all could be on any sci-fi show. —Joshua Rivera
The CBS of it all might be a feature, not a bug
The trailers for Halo made one thing very clear to fans: Paramount Plus’ way into the material would be distinct from Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and other giant series that are defining the tentpole era of television. Halo looks like NCIS, Criminal Minds, and other CBS content littering the platform — which is going to rub people who wanted to see the epically scaled franchise get a $300-million-a-season treatment.
But consider me warming up to the choice. In an era where direct-to-video action movies can pull off smarter stunts than Hollywood’s spectacle-driven blockbusters, and where digestible post-hard-day-at-work shows are drying up, the decision to make Halo an actual CBS show could work to its benefit long-term. The story is a bit fuzzy early on, but one can imagine Halo clicking into a SWAT mold, or even becoming truly deranged in the mode of Paramount Plus’ Evil. Neither show has been held back by budget or the traditional one-hour-drama aesthetic that’s come to define network TV.
If anything, it’s helped the character sides of those stories become more relatable, and genre-twisting, elements pop. This is not the Halo show I expected, but it might be the Halo show I keep watching, in hopes I latch on to the characters and the low-key plot-of-the-week drama of it all. There’s also room for it to be trashy and still entertain; shows like Babylon 5, Jack of All Trades, Xena, and those post-The Next Generation Trek shows thrived in a lower-rent, genre-slinging mode. Maybe Halo could, too? There’s enough character-driven plot babble and adequate production design to think it’s possible. —Matt Patches
Master Chief bears the brunt of bad writing
Master Chief has always been a thin character; his whole thing is by design. He’s taciturn, lethal, and he gets down to business. There might be a joke in there, but mostly he’s there to be our viewpoint, so he doesn’t risk much by way of personality. In the pilot of Halo he does what he’s never done before: defy an order. But without the larger Halo lore, it’s hard to get a sense of who we’re supposed to think he is up to this point. An obedient soldier, certainly, but everything about him (and his emotional journey) is told to us, rather than laced through his actions. Almost as quickly as he’s introduced to the audience, he’s shaken by a vision of an ordinary life, and then rebelling against a system he’s (maybe?) been subjugated by his whole life.
Nowhere in there do we get a sense of who he is enough to care, and the sci-fi story he’s helming feels as generic as he does. There’s little urgency or color to the world that counterbalances Master Chief’s wooden mannerisms. When he takes off his helmet he’s not a mutated child soldier, he’s just a guy. Halo’s Master Chief is all stiff dialogue and tortured stares, but the pain behind it gets lost in translation. —Zosha Millman
Episode 2 shows promise
I’m of the mind that Halo will be best served as a series because the show isn’t adapted exactly to the games. I don’t want a shot for shot retelling of what I’ve already seen or read. I want to love Halo in a new way, and to live in parts that I hadn’t had a chance to before. So while the first episode was a bit lackluster, the second episode actually picked up a bit. My thought is that Master Chief really is one of the least interesting characters for Halo to deal with; as a longtime Halo player and book-reader, I know a lot about the Master Chief. The newer characters are most interesting to me — I want to know more about the politics on Madrigal and the chaos in The Rubble.
The world of The Rubble, a renegade society that’s built from asteroids, is more lively and dark than anything in the pilot. I appreciate seeing a part of the Halo world I hadn’t before, and Bokeem Woodbine (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) is fantastic as Soren-066, a former Spartan who broke out of the training camp as a kid. The other thing is that episode 2, if I recall correctly, doesn’t have any scenes through the Spartan vision. There’s a lot of that first-person video game viewpoint in the first episode, and that’s a baffling decision. —Nicole Carpenter
They picked the wrong Halo theme song
Anyone who’s ever been anywhere near Halo knows how the soundtrack sounds. That theme song and its muted, angelic choir of “ohs” instantly puts you right back in the loading screen. While that iconic number plays at least once in the first two episodes of Halo, it’s fighting an uphill battle not just playing it over the credits to really get us in the mood. —ZM