Halo review: This video game adaptation kicks off on the right note, Shabana Azmi will make you proud
It's an odd feeling. A distinct kind of goosebump-inducing excitement - when you’re watching something you’ve grown up with, be it a book, comic, cartoon or game, come alive on screen in live-action. Something that’s felt like it’s partly lived in your imagination suddenly feels almost…real. (Also read: Halo: Pablo Shreiber talks about bringing The Master Chief to life, 'helmet acting' and more)
During the exhilarating, show-making opening action set piece of the new Halo series --the long-awaited, long-delayed live-action adaptation of one of the most beloved game franchises of all time--we see a small settlement on the planet Madrigal under siege. The invaders are the ruthless alien race known as the Covenant (towering, armoured, beast-like figures made up of CGI which ranges from impressive to serviceable). The Covenant warriors go around massacring, laser-sword-stabbing and shooting everyone in sight (the show thankfully doesn't shy away from or skirt over the violence).
Just as it seems like all hope is lost, a ship appears overhead, out of which leaps a familiar green and gold figure, making one hell of a superhero landing amidst the action. It’s him, the Master Chief, closely followed by three more elite Spartan warriors. The four go about tearing through the Covenant invaders one at a time, with assault rifles, headshots, and general Spartan hand to hand badass-ery. It’s a heart-racing sequence that I’ve rewatched multiple times, and the impact remains. It’s also a sequence that tells us a lot about what we’re in for with this show. Based on the two episodes I’ve seen, The Halo series means business, and it’s here to deliver on the expansive scale, thrilling action and rich detailing that this world deserves.
Set in the 26th century, the sci-fi epic follows the Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber), an elite soldier leading the charge in humanity's ongoing war with the powerful alien race, the Covenant. To strengthen humanity’s chances, they invented the Spartans, genetically enhanced, emotionally suppressed super-soldiers in fancy super suits. For the uninitiated, you don’t need to know much beyond the fact that there is a badass in a cool suit with guns who goes up against hordes of ugly alien invaders who he has to blow up till kingdom come. And the show does well to keep the proceedings accessible to newcomers in search of a new massively-mounted sci-fi action blowout to get lost in.
But for loyal devotees, the series (created by Steven Kane and Kyle Killen) is full of detailing and familiar Halo-isms aimed at getting fans of the game to jump with joy. Whether it’s the flawless Spartan suits (from costume designer Giovanni Lipari) or familiar toys like the Magnum Pistol, Battle Rifle or the Covenant’s energy swords and Needlers. Right down to the Master Chief's heads up display which gamers have lived in for hours on end. Perhaps my favourite was a series of all too familiar sounds that many of us have heard time and again - that urgent beeping that signifies that Chief’s shields are down and he needs to duck and cover. That is until we hear the reassuring whoosh of his shields having been successfully recharged meaning it’s time to dive back into the fight and inflict more Covenant-aimed carnage.
After they successfully fight off the Covenant on Madrigal, Chief and his fellow Spartans soon realise there’s only one survivor among the wreckage - young Kwan Ha (an earnest Yeri Ha). In one of the show's best decisions, most of the first two episodes are told from her perspective. She’s our eyes and ears into this world, as her life gets torn apart overnight and she’s suddenly sucked into a world of Spartans, aliens and the politics of war.
Also here to further the plot is a mysterious tablet-like artefact that the Spartans find when investigating what the Covenant were after on Madrigal (the Halo universe is all about mysterious objects). An object which only Chief can seem to activate (real ‘chosen one’ vibes), one which seems to allow him to access repressed memories and restore the humanity taken away during his super-soldier-fication. Thus kicks off a conventional yet compelling ‘blindly loyal soldier starts to question the orders he’s given and fights back against the very system that created him’ template of events.
The excellent pilot episode does everything you’d hope - establish the world (significantly down to Sophie Becher’s dazzling production design), the species-ending stakes and key characters. The second episode, however, doesn't quite pack the same punch, serving as an exposition-heavy look at Master Chief wrestling with authority vs his newly rediscovered humanity, thus breaking away from the pilot’s winning combination of Chief as the brawn and young Kwan Ha as the show’s beating heart.
For much of the second episode, it’s Chief without his helmet (which almost never happens in the games), with Pablo Schreiber trying to take us into his head. It’s a decision that’s led to much uproar amongst the fans. (It really doesn't take much does it? At this point, a character from a beloved franchise could blink weirdly and these folks would social media riot). Personally, it’s a call that made sense to me. This isn’t a first-person shooter where we are him, it’s a second person narrative series about him. The issue I had wasn’t his lack of headgear, but by the fact that, going by the second episode, he just isn’t all that interesting when he isn’t wielding oversized guns shooting down oversized aliens. Shreiber’s stoic soldier act is sincere but, not unlike The Mandalorian (who’s only ever removed his helmet once across two seasons), Chief is far more interesting as a faceless figure. The helmet adds an allure. As if we’re projecting our feelings onto him.
What also demands a mention is our very own Shabana Azmi who plays Admiral Parangosky, one of the military leaders who sees Chief as little more than a military asset. This is by no means a fleeting role, but a significant lead character and to watch her demand an air of authority in a massive Hollywood show is a beaming point of pride. Equally intriguing is how much focus the series gives the Covenant high command - we get multiple cutaways to the mysterious leaders of the alien armada, ensuring that they’re more than mere brutes and a far more interesting adversary.
Going by the two episodes thus far, the Halo series is a massively-mounted triumph that gets most things right. While it’s by no means nuanced, cerebral sci-fi, it’s too big and lavishly executed to not be seduced by. I for one look forward to more Master Chief showdowns, though preferably in the full suit and on the battlefield going on a creepy Covenant-killing rampage.