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Neil-Review

HALO Season 1 Review

Neil reviews the first season of Paramount+’s HALO TV series. Episodes 1-3 are available to stream in the UK now with new episodes weekly.

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Halo (Paramount+)

Episodes 1-3 are available to stream in the UK from today via Paramount+. New episodes will stream every Wednesday.

Synopsis

Dramatizing an epic 26th-century conflict between humanity and an alien threat known as the Covenant, Halo the series will weave deeply drawn personal stories with action, adventure and a richly imagined vision of the future. In a war for humanity’s very survival, our deadliest weapon is our greatest hope. See Master Chief, Cortana, the Covenant, and the other Spartans of Silver Team more in this epic trailer for the new Paramount+ Original Series, Halo. Find the Halo, win the war.

Review

We all know the trope. Computer games rarely make successful series or movies unless you’re a blue hedgehog or Angelina Jolie touting twin hand-guns. But with Halo finally making its way to UK shores, are we about to see the curse of the small screen gaming adaption broken?

Having watched the season in full all signs certainly point towards yes. This first batch of episodes (nine in total) work well as a re-contextualising of the Halo universe. Taking what gamers know and adapting it to fit a new medium. But first, let’s clear two elephants from the room…

  1. Yes, John-117 does remove his helmet. If this is an issue for you then please move on.
  2. Yes, there is a sex scene involving John-117. There are reasons for his actions rooted in his story arc.

The first three episodes – releasing today for UK viewers – act as a solid introduction to Master Chief/John-117 (Pablo Schreiber) and the Halo universe. Creating an origin story for a character who has existed in trans media for two decades is no easy task. Those who have been with the franchise from the beginning will no doubt feel a sense of ownership over the character. But series creators Steven Kane and Kyle Killen have constructed a narrative arc which self-assuredly takes control from the player. The relationship is subtly subverted to allow the gamer to relax in to the role of audience member. Shifting the focus from making Master Chief’s decisions to simply following his journey.

Episode one, “Contact”, sets the scene by opening on the planet Madrigal and following a colony of insurrectionists who are attacked by The Covenant. It sets up the scope and scale of the series whilst simultaneously introducing us to Yerin Ha as Kwan Ha and allowing for some bad ass Spartan action. We’re literally introduced to Master Chief as he does what he does best, lead his team and battle Covenant forces.

Pablo Schreiber is perfectly cast as both Master Chief and John-117. I refer to the two separately as in the beginning they feel like different characters. When Master Chief first appears on screen he’s the stoic military leader fans would expect. But by episode nine we’re seeing an evolved character who is seeking to control his emotions and questioning his place in the universe. Schreiber has has a natural charisma which makes John-117 an affable lead. Given more levity in his dialogue, the character could become a truly compelling lead.

Interestingly, “Contact” seemingly sets up a buddy-cop journey between John-117 and Kwan. The two are thrust together for much of the episode. Events culminate in John-117 tapping in to his human emotions via a keystone. Removing his helmet for the first time in an attempt to form a bond with Kwan. However, setting in to episodes two and three the story heavily diversifies from this formula.

The writers choose to pair Kwan with Bokeem Woodbine’s Soren-066, an escapee of the Spartan programme who later became an Insurrectionist leader. Their journey together fleshes out the wider Halo universe away from the UNSC. Additionally introducing the idea of political unrest reaching from Rubble to Madrigalmand beyond. Though always compelling, I ultimately found myself wondering what purpose it served to the overall arc of the season. I’m intrigued to know if this plot thread is picked back up in the confirmed second season.

An alternate version of these nine episodes may find John-117 and Kwan travelling together. Uncovering the motivations of Vinsher Grath (Burn Gorman), a UNSC ally who seeks to quash the insurrection on Madrigal. Along the journey John-117 would also slowly discover his humanity through this protective, paternal bond. Perhaps that might have been too close to The Mandalorian travelling with Baby Yoda?

Instead John-117 returns to Reach and his Spartans, seeking to uncover his connection to the keystone discovered on Madrigal. Said keystone is Halo‘s MacGuffin, a device through which we’re able to infinitely push forward the narrative. Of course it also connects this adaption back to the games and various novels. It is by no means lazy writing, it precisely fits the sci-fi aesthetic of the Halo universe.

Reach base is populated with a healthy set of supporting characters for John-117. Fellow Spartans Riz-028 (Natasha Culzac), Vannak-134 (Bentley Kalu) make for heavy-duty backup. But with their emotions controlled by pellets attached to their nervous systems neither is afforded much development. Unlike them is Kai-125 (Kate Kennedy) who is more attuned to John’s wavelength. Across the season Kai-125 is certainly a character to watch and a potential focal point for season 2.

Of all of Halo‘s supporting cast it is Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone) who has the most to do. Halsey is at the centre of the action on all fronts. Working at Reach to create a new form of AI called Cortana. A name which is no doubt familiar to gamers. Halsey’s connection to John-117 is exploited throughout the season in an effort to reach her endgame.

By no means a moustache twirling villain, McElhone plays Halsey with a gleeful ambiguity. Her feelings towards John-117 are clearly somewhat maternal. But is it purely due to his ties to the keystone and what it stands for? Or does some part of her truly care for the child she took from his parents? In order to reach her goal she needs to keep John-117 on side and she does this to the detriment of her own career and family. Throughout the season there are flashbacks, brought on by that helpful MacGuffin, which fill in the blanks and add useful context.

Over the course of these nine episodes the stakes slowly but surely increase. Moreover the series introduced larger set pieces and bigger action. The sense of pacing is exciting and really peaks only during the dramatic conclusion in episode nine. As first seasons go, Halo‘s story is deftly crafted and I hope to see that continue in season 2.

The overall production is impressive. At a rumoured cost of $200M the series packs a punch where it counts. Visual effects are, for the most part, hugely cinematic. Larger scale battles stretch the realms of possible to their limit but never to the detriment of the story. The Covenant aliens look formidable and the in-costume Spartan’s are a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Sean Callery’s musical score is both epic and effective, reflecting its deeper elements as well as its action.

Verdict

In its first season Halo carefully takes control from the player, adding depth and scope which methodically adapts the franchise for the screen. Anchored by a charismatic cast and some impressive visuals, Halo reaches the UK market as a promising sign of things to come.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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