‘Halo’ Review: Video Game Makes Decent, If Familiar TV Adaptation

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It isn’t the fault of “Halo,” the TV series adaptation finally premiering March 24 on Paramount Plus after years stuck in development hell, that it comes on the heels of a plethora of TV and streaming options that look and feel similar enough to lessen its ability to shock and awe. From “The Mandalorian” (Disney Plus), to “Matrix: Resurrections” (HBO Max), to “Foundation” (Apple TV Plus), there are already plenty of big budget science fiction epics onscreen taking on the same themes as “Halo” (written for TV by Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, and produced in part by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television). Even Paramount’s own “Star Trek” shows might scratch a close enough itch. So in its quest to stand out in the vast galaxy of other options, the question for “Halo” then becomes whether this particular adaptation can not only attract enough existing fans of its source material to make a difference, but reel in viewers who may not have much knowledge of the sprawling “Halo” universe — which includes the video game, books and comics — but value good television nonetheless.

This is the part of the review where I admit to being firmly in the latter camp, but rest assured: My lack of “Halo” experience doesn’t come from any sort of self-righteous anti-video game stance, but rather self-preservation. Once it became clear that my extreme lack of “Halo” skill (I could barely walk in a straight line, let alone shoot on target) was a bad combination with my extreme competitiveness, I had to tap out of what would inevitably be a very unsatisfying situation. So when faced with watching and reviewing Killen and Kane’s TV adaptation now, I had no choice but to approach it from the perspective of a TV fan. This way, I might find out if the show’s complex universe might prove intriguing with or without knowing much more than its fundamentals beforehand — and in that respect, it does an admirable job.

In fact, if you didn’t already know that “Halo” was based on a franchise including a video game — admittedly unlikely, but bear with me — it would take about half an episode for that connection to become clearer, anyway. In the pilot, which debuted March 14 at SXSW ahead of its Paramount Plus premiere, the initial focus lands on Kwan (Yerin Ha), a teenage girl on the dusty planet of Madrigal who enjoys scavenging with her friends and daydreaming about leaving “this rock” someday. Beyond her, the episode then makes admirably quick work of explaining the stakes (intergalactic war) and establishing civilians’ perceptions of the government’s “Spartan” soldiers (mythic, ruthless, indestructible), before all hell breaks loose in a way that will look familiar to anyone who’s picked up a controller to blast evil aliens into smithereens.

As the Spartans — including “Halo” hero Master Chief (portrayed by Pablo Schreiber) — take on their mysterious foes, director Otto Bathurst periodically swoops behind one and into their helmets, where they can scan their surroundings for weapons and data, lock in on enemy targets, and receive instructions from superiors such as Admiral Margaret Parangosky (Shabana Azmi) or scientist Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone). This viewfinder perspective mimics that of what “Halo” players have seen for more than 20 years now when stepping into Master Chief’s enormous, armored shoes, and is a clever way for the show to bring in the look and feel of the video game without losing itself inside of it.

Outside this first bombastic fight, though, “Halo” works overtime to broaden out its world and narrative scope beyond the basics of battle. In terms of sheer visuals, the aliens themselves make for the show’s least convincing effect. Otherwise, the series boasts an impressive budget used wisely, with distinct production design distinguishing one planetary location for another and spaceships zipping through endless stars. That alone lets “Halo” keep apace with its contemporaries (in particular “Foundation,” which shares enough aesthetic language with “Halo” to come to mind more than once). What might make or break “Halo,” then, is how it deepens its source material to create characters that feel less like playable robots than real flesh and blood — especially since it’s already been renewed for a second season.

While exploring Madrigal with his squadron, Master Chief finds a Covenant relic that speaks to him like it does no one else, immediately throwing him into a self-reflective spiral and raising serious alarm bells with the likes of Parangosky and Halsey. In the video game, Master Chief is a purposeful blank slate to the point that his figure-obscuring helmet stays firmly attached to his full-body armor. In this TV show, Schreiber gets significantly more to work with, especially as the character begins to question his total commitment to taking orders and links up with Kwan to create an unlikely pair of uneasy compatriots. (And yes: in these moments, it’s nearly impossible to not compare “Halo” to “The Mandalorian.”) Schreiber is decent in the early outings of Master Chief’s identity crisis, though nowhere near as immediately charismatic or deftly written as, say, Pedro Pascal’s wry “Star Wars” warrior. With more solid characterization to grasp onto, it’s Ha who steals the show as she embodies Kwan’s defiance and visceral pain once everything she holds dear is irrevocably lost. The second episode dives even deeper into the show’s mythos, ditching brawls for backstory and hints of what’s to come  (including, “Halo” enthusiasts might be keen to know, Halsey’s game-changing Cortana clone, played by Jen Taylor).

Whether or not those who’ve loved the “Halo” game might enjoy watching something that makes all the choices for them, and takes pains to balance its violent wars with headier dialogue, will ultimately be up to them. In order to make a successful TV show, however, Killen and Kane (who will not be showrunning Season 2) simply had no choice but to devote more time to character and worldbuilding. Seeing the world through a vacant perspective might work for a game in which the audience has its own agency, but not for a show that requires its own point of view. In its first two episodes, “Halo” doesn’t quite have that yet. But as another entrant in the ever expanding “Halo” universe, it at least has enough ambition to make it worth a closer look.

“Halo” premieres Thursday, Mar. 24 on Paramount Plus.

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