Halo Episodes 1 and 2 Review: Paramount+ Wants a Mandalorian

A live-action Halo project has been in the works for so long that it was supposed to be Neill Blomkamp’s first film, and he’s now working on his fifth. But give or take a webseries and a digital feature that skirted the edges of the main story due to budgetary limitations, nobody has really cracked the story of the Master Chief until now. And the reason seems obvious: Once those in control of the franchise saw that a big-budget streaming series featuring an elite warrior who hardly ever takes off his helmet could be a hit, they followed suit. (Taking notes, Judge Dredd?) In Halo episodes 1 and 2, the parallels become evident. This is also true.

Naturally, he winds up spontaneously deciding to protect a child whom he’s supposed to deliver into the hands of more nefarious forces. Probably more coincidentally, he’s even portrayed by an actor whose first name begins with P and ends with O. Call him the Spartandalorian.

Granted, Yerin Ha’s character of Kwan Ha won’t be as marketable as Baby Grogu. She’s a rebellious teenager with attitude, but no Power Ranger yet. However, in a universe where most everyone else follows orders, it takes someone as assured of her own righteousness as an adolescent girl from a libertarian planet to argue a guy like Master Chief John 117 (Pablo Schreiber) out of his hardcore convictions.

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What Paramount+ can do that Lucasfilm won’t is push the envelope on adult content. So expect near-nudity and a whole lot of blood splatters and more. Halo may not follow The Walking Dead rule of delivering a certain amount of kills every episode. Covenant Elites are expensive CG, unlike practical walkers. But thus far, at least the first episode begins with the sort of Spartan vs. Covenant fight fans would hope for. Blood — both red and green — flies. Boy does it.

Don’t expect a full-on origin story, as the show begins with the war already in progress. Kwan allows for a new viewer’s POV, as her outpost world of Madrigal resents the UNSC. And they assume that all of this talk of aliens is a false flag. While Master Chief arrives fully formed with a long history in battle, Cortana’s creation is presented as a work in progress. Meanwhile, Paramount’s digital landscape budget doesn’t look quite the same level of real as Lucasfilm’s on a desert planet. Although it fares much better in space. A colony of asteroids linked by cable cars and roller-coaster tracks feels genuinely imaginative and exciting for a location. It’s preposterous in scientific plausibility, but sometimes sci-fi needs more of that. It’s not like the Force is any more real.

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Many interiors, however, and even the actors inhabiting them, achieve a sort of reverse realism by looking almost exactly like a PC game. So many sterile, shiny surfaces lacking personal touches, and stiff humans who either have digital facelifts or just difficulty moving their cheek muscles. This works in Schreiber’s case: John 117 comes to us as a blank slate as far as he knows, with memories and emotions slowly seeping in. Bokeem Woodbine adds a useful dose of humanity as a former Spartan who ditched the program many years before John thought twice about orders.

And Keir Dullea is here! The star of 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t make too many high-profile appearances these days, so his work as an aging Admiral feels like a royal blessing. Another nice retro callback is an alien leadership hierarchy reminiscent of the original Battlestar Galactica: three Imperious Leaders beholden to a human traitor who resembles a super-intelligent child.

The pace of the plot may frustrate gamers who know this stuff forward and backwards. Two episodes in, we haven’t even gotten to the reason for the Halo name yet. And all the potential running and shooting of aliens will inevitably face practical limits. In a nice nod to gameply, Master Chief’s helmeted POV does approximate the game screen. Pop-ups indicating where friendlies and crucial gear are everywhere. And unlike in some of the trailer shots, the costume’s sheer bulk and mobility feels intimidating. The aliens, arguably, look better than in the game. But so far, we haven’t seen any Grunts or Brutes.

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Halo episodes 1 and 2 create more questions than they answer. While it’s really too early to assess the story, it’s fair to say that at least the world-building is top-notch. Certain things fans of the games already know will get reiterated, but for casuals, the show doesn’t do too much hand-holding. It’s on newcomers to pay attention, which may distress those who merely hoped for simplistic sci-fi action.

As for the tone, the jury’s still out there too. Halo seems to want to horrify and be cool at the same time, perhaps not unlike network TV news. Real world events may make any kind of war/invasion show less palatable right now. That’s a call each viewer must make themselves. As a prime example, the first time we really see a needler in action, it’s being used to commit war crimes. Hits a fan right in the feels, and they’re not all good ones.

However things turn out, Paramount+ has not obviously dropped the ball. The series has yet to generate that sinking “Oh no, another video game adaptation being stupid!” feeling that many of us are so familiar with. Here’s hoping it never will. There’s real potential in this show. But it’s on the next few episodes to deliver it.

Grade so far: 3/5

Halo debuts on Paramount+ on Thursday, March 24.

Recommended Reading – Halo Mythos: A Guide to the Story of Halo

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