Quite how Halo hasn’t made it to the screen, small or big, before this is an enigma almost as nebulous as the long-running first person shooter video game’s crowded mythos. Luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and District 9’s Neill Blomkamp have all been involved in trying to get a film based on the explosive exploits of Masterchief across the line for the best part of two decades, yet to no avail. Even this big-budget – it reputedly cost more than $200m and looks like gold – TV series starring Pablo Schreiber as the genetically engineered soldier-hero of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) has been held up for two years by Covid.
Never mind, it’s here now, and fans of the games who just want to see their nightly battles with giant space monsters played out on the TV screen will no doubt be more than content with Kyle Killen and Steven Kane’s adventurous if somewhat insipid reimagining. Unfortunately, those of us who don’t recognise every re-enacted power-up bleep and helmet-cam vision of destruction will probably find ourselves wondering, much of the time, quite what is going on.
Halo imagines a galaxy set in the 26th century in which the ruling UNSC finds itself under attack from a theocratic alien invading force known as the Covenant, while also at times coming into conflict with frontier settlers on distant planets who bristle under centralised control. To complicate the picture, the Covenant are obsessed with giant, habitable space structures known as the Halo Array, which were left behind by ancient beings known as the Forerunners.
The game and TV show seem to borrow from all the good places in modern sci-fi. Aficionados will recognise elements of Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga, as well as a heavy hint of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, while this new version of Masterchief has a Robocop-lite in space vibe. In the first of two episodes screened so far for press, he stumbles upon a strange glowing artefact on a pioneer world, and after unwittingly activating its mysterious powers begins to experience visions of his former life before being turned into an all-powerful alien-killing badass.
Cue some serious awol action, as the power-suited soldier grabs the last remaining settler from the planet, a 17-year-old girl (Yerin Ha) and sets off on what we assume will be a journey of self-discovery with wider significance. Before long he has reconnected with a one-time comrade-turned-deserter (Bokeem Woodbine) who has turned his back on the UNSC for the life of an outlaw, and whose job seems to be to show Masterchief that there is an existence beyond daily extra-terrestrial mass murder.
It doesn’t seem as if our man will be given much time off for R&R, however, The Covenant are also after the artefact as part of their ongoing spiritual mission to unlock the secrets of the Halo Array and go on their famed “great journey” to meet the Forerunners. Meanwhile, the UNSC command, deviously nudged along by Natascha McElhone’s slightly mad-looking scientist, Dr Catherine Elizabeth Halsey – she also doubles as the AI Cortana, a major staple of the games – are wondering how in space they are going to get their major asset back.
Whoever decided to cast Schreiber, the character actor veteran of shows such as Orange is the New Black (as dodgy prison guard “Pornstache”) and American Gods, as an action hero deserves a medal. Standing 196cm tall and now built like a tank, he makes just the sort of imposing, statuesque figure required for a seemingly unstoppable human battle machine. Unfortunately, the screenwriters aren’t giving him a lot of help this early in the series – Schreiber doesn’t have much to say, and mainly just looks a bit confused that he’s been forced to suddenly stop blowing the bejesus out of monstrous aliens and engage instead with his inner child. This is despite the show giving him ample opportunity to remove his helmet, which rarely happens in the game.
The obvious parallels are with The Mandalorian, another show about a seemingly invincible, murderous space warrior who embarks on a path towards becoming a total sweetie. If that’s the long-term plan here, neither the show nor Schreiber has quite nailed it yet. Paramount+ have already commissioned season two, however, so somebody out there clearly thinks they’ve got a hit on their hands. Part of the problem, of course, is that the show could easily end up being hugely popular, thanks to that built-in fanbase, without ever quite managing to navigate far beyond the realms of mediocrity to a distant planet named “half-decent”.