A desert planet being stripped of a natural resource. Endless war supported by a nefarious government with its eyes on profits. A potentially dangerous artificial-intelligence system with lethal decision-making capabilities. These are somewhat generic sci-fi concepts, but in the expansive Halo video-game universe, they come alive as players immerse themselves in decision-making and weapon-firing. Which gun to use to attack a squad of enemy Covenant fighters? How to move amid rebels? How much can the AI Cortana be trusted? (Why she’s so sexualized is another kick-the-hornet’s-nest question that would take too long to argue about.)
As a TV show, though, Halo lacks the immersive capability that has made this franchise so phenomenally successful. Between the series’s somewhat nondescript visual style and its overwhelming exposition, Halo is bogged down by world-building and almost hampered by its source material. Not even the singular intensity of Pablo Schreiber, a man who somehow made being a leprechaun god both scary and sexy on American Gods, can entirely hold one’s attention.
To be fair, Paramount+ only provided critics two advance episodes of Halo, which premieres today. There are seven episodes left to go in this first season, a second season already ordered, and $90 million already spent. Maybe with time, Halo will develop an identity of its own. But these first two episodes bring to mind an array of sci-fi series that have come before, from Altered Carbon to Cowboy Bebop to Westworld (all of which had stronger beginnings). And the things that should set Halo apart — like thrilling action sequences that honor the video game’s many first-person-shooter iterations or a strong sense of the enmity between humans and the alien Covenant force that aligns with the franchise’s lengthy backstory — don’t yet click.
Halo is set in an unspecified time in the future when the Earth agency United Nations Space Command (UNSC) is devoted specifically to exploring space and defending humans from the alien force the Covenant. UNSC exploration, though, looks a lot like colonialism (“It’s about keeping the deuterium flowing, regardless of the cost,” is one very Dune-like line), and the Sentinel super-soldiers they send to fight the Covenant are universally feared by the people they’re supposed to protect because of their tendency to kill citizens. In a customary bit of explanatory dialogue, an inhabitant of a rebel planet that refuses to recognize UNSC’s authority says, “Marines can be killed. Spartans aren’t human. They’re faster, stronger, smarter. They cannot be stopped. They just keep on killing without mercy ’til there’s nothing left to kill.”
Such mercilessness is by design: UNSC’s Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), who created the Spartan program, believes the soldiers’ absence of emotions is an asset. But she’s being nipped at by all sides. Admiral Margaret Parangosky (Shabana Azmi) is doubtful of Halsey’s AI program Cortana and disgusted by her ethically shaky techniques. (Azmi’s sneering line delivery of “Get rid of that and any others” at seeing Halsey’s clone of herself is pretty good.) Halsey’s estranged daughter, Dr. Miranda Keyes (Olive Gray), is frustrated by her mother’s hogging of attention and funding and increasingly uncomfortable with the unquestioning support that her father, Captain Jacob Keyes (Danny Sapani), provides to the UNSC, even when they’re ordering the assassination of children. It’s all pretty melodramatic, and it takes too much time away from who should be the primary focus of Halo: Sentinel Master Chief 117, or, as barely anyone calls him, John (Schreiber).
Halo is clearly setting up an “Are we the baddies?”–style arc for John, whose anti-hero status is established in the premiere episode. Sure, he and three other Sentinels wipe out two squadrons of Covenant fighters on the planet Madrigal with a menagerie of weapons. But they also literally walk away from teenager Quan Ah (Yerin Ha), the outpost’s only survivor, as she mourns the massacre of her father and everyone she’s ever known, and ignore her begging for help. The Sentinels are not nice, and although Schreiber’s face is mostly hidden by a helmet with an identifiable gold eye shield, his assured voice performance and stiff body language establish the character’s rigidness.
That transforms once John touches a Covenant “keystone” that flashes a geometric design, generates an energy force field, and unlocks hidden memories of his childhood — providing him with an interiority that Spartans aren’t supposed to have. John’s changed personality leads him to take off his helmet, a major breach of UNSC protocol (yes, à la The Mandalorian), and to protect Quan Ah. (And to even crack deadpan jokes, like his response of “Nuts, bolts, microchips” to her question about what he wants to eat.) Their Lone Wolf and Cub dynamic is built on the foundation of his laconic nature and her mistrust of the UNSC, and it’s one of the series’s most promising elements. “We’ve seen your Spartan propaganda broadcasts. You think the Outer Colonies don’t see through that?” Quan spits at Dr. Keyes, and it’s a testament to Ha’s strong performance that even amid the series’s many visual effects — including when Quan is running through a battle zone with her friends’ bodies exploding around her, or facing off against holograms of UNSC higher-ups — your eyes always go back to her expressive face.
But the series’s cinematography, like its narrative priorities, is uneven. A major attack scene in the premiere episode suffers from hyperactive acting that destroys any cohesive sense of place, but later sequences are unforgettable, like the Sentinels walking in the desert, their shadows ominously long, and John and Quan hurtling through an asteroid field. A reveal about John’s tortured background is shared so quickly that it barely qualifies as a mystery, even though the series treats it as such, and certain dialogue exchanges — especially for Admiral Parangosky and Captain Keyes — are yawningly didactic. And must every sci-fi property these days include a musing like, “What’s the point of saving humanity if we’re going to give up our own?” That’s not meaningful; it’s just rote.
There are subplots with potential here, though, and they’re primarily location-based: the Rubble, an anarchic outpost on which John reunites with old friend Soren (the ever-wonderful Bokeem Woodbine), and Madrigal, now ruled by Vinsher Grath (Burn Gorman), a murderous-but-loyal warlord. Those areas could unlock various elements of John and Quan’s identities and further elucidate the dynamic between them as two orphans manipulated by the UNSC. How Halo is choosing to spend its time, though — that strange artifact, an endless war, and political backstabbing — isn’t yet as compelling as whatever weirdness could be happening in the forgotten corners of this universe.
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