With all the video game shows and films we’re expected to get in the near future, not many have the strange baggage that the TV adaptation of Halo does. Microsoft’s flagship shooter was first announced to be getting the TV treatment back in 2013, and has been in development for nearly a full decade — which is to say nothing of the movie that Microsoft tried to make for the series that ultimately went missing in action.
In the time it’s taken for the show to be shot and released, the franchise has gone through some noticeable shakeups, with last year’s Halo Infinite having successfully gotten waning fans back on board with the games, at least. Beyond that, the idea of what Halo is as a franchise — a simple story of one space marine (and some friends) fighting for humanity against a succession of alien threats, or a sprawling space epic featuring ancient civilizations, supersoldiers, and rogue AI — has frequently changed, even during Bungie’s tenure before the studio bowed out with 2010’s Halo Reach.
It would be easy for Paramount’s Halo series to simply coast on the franchise’s goodwill, but the show is openly uninterested in just doing a simple retread of Master Chief’s story that players have experienced for 20 years. “Contact,” the show’s debut episode, goes out of its way to show how it’ll be different from the games via its fancy, exclusive Silver Timeline. The episode opens on a small colony of human Insurrectionists on the planet Madrigal. The Insurrectionists, we’re told, left the United Nations Space Command, the reigning government of the galaxy that’s since spent years using their Spartan supersoldiers trying to quell the pockets of Insurrectionists across the galaxy. In the games, the Spartans have been regarded as mythic figures who save the day and inspire hope in humanity during their various intergalactic conflicts. But that reverent tone is nowhere to be found in this opening, as an Insurrectionist professor describes the armoured soldiers in chilling detail as something to be afraid of, the kind of spooky story you tell to get a child to go to bed or avoid a place they shouldn’t go.
That tinge of unease becomes amplified when our POV character, the teenager Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) and her friends are out exploring past the borders of their colony when they’re attacked by a squad of Covenant Elites. From there, the episode shifts into full on horror as Kwan flees to her base, covered in the blood of her dead friends and unable to tell anyone that the Covenant is real rather than UNSC propaganda like they originally believed. Violence in the Halo games has always veered towards the cartoony, but director Otto Bathurst gives this sequence a genuine sense of terror and desperation as Kwan gets her people to safety and looks for her father Jin (Jeong-hwan Kong) while avoiding getting shot at. Amblin Entertainment’s CG, used to bring the Elites to life, makes them as scary (but also charmingly silly) as it can be facing them in the games, and there’s a real weight to the way they move around the battlefield blasting and stabbing anyone in their path.
If the early parts of the Madrigal invasion are trying to pull from the sheer hopelessness found in the original Halo and spinoffs like Reach and ODST, having the UNSC’s Spartans touch down to save the day feels more in line with how Infinite and Halo 5 want the supersoldiers to feel superhuman. The CG for scenes where Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) has to use his enhanced strength or agility can be a bit goofy, but like the Elites, there’s a real weight to how the Spartans move on and off the battlefield that gives them presence. It’s hard not to be excited when Chief picks up a turret to mow down enemies or when another Spartan dual wields while effortlessly stomping through the warzone, or overcharging a Plasma Pistol to take down an Elite’s shields before finishing them off with a headshot.
Exactly what kind of character Master Chief is has been a point of contention for some time, and 343’s past efforts to humanize the iconic Spartan have been mostly mixed. Halo the series doesn’t attempt to reset the Chief back to being the mostly mute murder machine he was in the original trilogy, but it doesn’t just hit the same notes as more recent games, either. For many, it won’t be difficult to see some similarities between Chief and a certain bounty hunter, but there’s a more deliberate, almost robotic cadence to how Schreiber’s Spartan interacts in the world. He isn’t trying to imitate Steve Downes’ performance from the games, and the show’s smartest move is to let Schreiber comfortably exist as an exceptional soldier who’s only begun to reckon with his upbringing. “Contact” gets to this plot point a little too fast, but Schreiber manages to sell this more conflicted, suddenly emotional Chief fairly well. If nothing else, it feels like the show has a firm enough handle on its central character that it feels earned when he takes his helmet off in the pilot — something we’ve never seen happen in a Halo game or series before.
Spartans are an important part of Halo, though the franchise has typically kept them away from Chief so as to sell his importance as a symbol for humanity. When he has interacted with other Spartans, the results have been mixed across the board, and the same holds true for the show. While his fellow Silver Team Spartans — Riz (Natasha Culzac), Vannak (Bentley Calu), and Kai (Kate Kennedy) — don’t have much to do in the first pair of episodes, there are glimpses of potential for them to be more than additional boots on the ground. (Again: there’s a real unease that eventually surrounds all four of the main Spartans in this show, even from the masters who deploy them.) But ultimately, it’s Bokeem Woodbine as the defector Spartan Soren who has the most importance in Chief’s life. When he shows up in the second episode, Woodbine’s naturally laid back vibe gives Soren real chemistry with Chief, enough to make you believe their characters really were good friends before their lives went on different paths.
What’s surprising about the show is how it offers a bigger focus on parts of the Halo universe that the games have relied on expanded media to dig into. It’s interesting how much of the show is set up to interrogate the creation of the Spartans themselves: the UNSC kidnapped young children and, thanks to the efforts of scientist Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone), experimented on them to become supersoldiers. Halsey’s pursuit of knowledge has always driven her, and it’s understandably created a wedge between her and other UNSC members, including Jacob Keyes (Danny Sapani) and her scientist daughter Miranda (Olive Grey).
The twisted family that Halsey managed to make in the UNSC from Miranda, the Spartans, and Chief in particular is one of the show’s bigger tensions. Surrogate parents having strange dynamics with their kids is nothing new for television, and the series really highlights how much Halsey plays favourites with her supersoldier children also manipulating them for her own ends. What’s missing from this family, at least in the first two episodes, is the AI Cortana (Jen Taylor). Born directly from Halsey’s mind, there’s teases at a take on Chief’s future partner that could make or break the series, but nothing quite so solid yet on just how the show will handle one of the franchise’s most iconic partnerships.
Having seen the first two episodes in advance, it’s clear that showrunners Steven Kane and Kyle Killen are very much interested in exploring the Halo universe through a wider lens than the main games have provided. There’s enough faithfulness on display in Halo to prove that this is a show for the fans. But there’s also enough willingness here to shake things up, get a little looser and weirder so it can take the Chief on a great journey of its own that could offer up some fun surprises.
Halo premieres today, March 24, on Paramount+.