Halo Falls Short Of Its Video Game Roots

Halo is the latest video game franchise to get a big-budget onscreen adaptation. This one is now appearing on TV on the Paramount + streaming service and from the conclusion of the first episode, it was clear that this live-action series was going to do things differently. The main character, the Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber), who is the vanguard of humanity’s war against an alien force known as the Covenant, takes his helmet off to gain the trust of a girl he just saved. This marks a radical departure from the games where to date, we have never seen him without his helmet.  While this is a small detail and doesn’t detract from the episode, in retrospect it was a sign that this show was going to tell a very different story than what is portrayed in the famous video game franchise.

The main idea of the Halo games is that Master Chief is, at most times, a lone warrior fighting against impossible odds on strange aliens worlds against overwhelming foes. These being a group of hostile extraterrestrial races called the Covenant that vow to wipe out humankind in a war that Earth is losing. He encounters the strange ring-shaped world dubbed “Halo” at the start of the very first game and has to figure out its mysteries and stop the Covenant from using it to destroy all life in the galaxy. The Halo TV show however is somewhat of a prequel and starts with Master Chief and other super soldiers named Spartans arriving on a human colony, Madrigal that is invaded by the Covenant.

On the planet he encounters a lone human survivor, a young girl named  Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha), who he brings back to humanity’s headquarters on the planet Reach. Eventually he takes her to a sanctuary world, then she escapes back to Madrigal to try to lead her people against an oppressive government. Meanwhile, Master Chief aka “John” finds a Covenant artifact that he seems to have some strange mystical connection to, and he uncovers details of his past where he was kidnapped as a child by a Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone) who created the super soldier program to make the other Spartans as well. These other Spartans also start to question their origins, while Halsey deals with her daughter (Olivia Gray), who is upset by her absentee mother.  Notice that the plot of a war against a group of aliens hellbent on humanity’s extinction is not mentioned other than at the start of the paragraph?

This is the biggest issue I have with this adaptation, that the main focus of the games is basically a subplot in this show that seems to fade to the background other than a few scenes here and there. There are only 9 episodes in this first season and the story needs to be tight and focused, but it seems instead to be set on world building and character exposition to the detriment of what should be the main plot of Earth and its struggle against a genocidal group of aliens who see humans as an affront to their religious beliefs regarding the Halo artifact. There is even one episode solely devoted to Kwan Ha and her journey on Madrigal finding out about her past. This can happen if this was a network TV show with 20-plus episodes, but not with a streaming TV show with limited episodes.

In the games, the Covenant believe that the Halo is a sacred structure that, when activated, will take them to paradise. The reality, *spoiler alert*,  is that it is a weapon created by an ancient race called the Forerunners who used it to destroy life in the galaxy to starve a parasitic race called the Flood of their food source. The Forerunners then re-seeded the galaxy with life, including humans and the Covenant races, on different planets. None of this is explained or shown to the audience, probably since they expect fans of the games to know this, but for non-gamers who will be clueless about this. I can understand that they might not want to overwhelm viewers with larger amounts of backstory and game mythology, and establishing the characters is important, but it seems like they wanted to tell a very different sci-fi story than what is told in the various games. It’s as if they are more interested in the machinations and political intrigue of Earths’ government, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), as well as Dr. Halsey and the UNSC’s questionable tactics regarding the creation of the Spartans, as opposed to what should be the desperate attempt to survive against the onslaught of the Covenant. 

The positives of the show are the design and look of the Spartans and Covenant when they show up. They look very much like their video game counterparts. And the few scenes of action we do get are very good. The first, fifth and last episodes show the Master Chief and other Spartans in action fighting against their foes. It’s a real treat to see and does offer a glimpse of what the show can be. Obviously, it can’t be non-stop action as opposed to the games, but it’s really about what the focus of the show should be. The season ends with the Chief seemingly taken over by his AI assistant Cortana (Jen Taylor), as they escape with artifacts that can lead them to the location of the Halo ring world.

Hopefully the second season will have him finally arriving at the Halo itself to set off the chain of events that happen in the first game, and we can have the politics of the UNSC in the background, with the fight against the Covenant at the forefront of the show. As a generic sci-fi TV show, Halo is fine, but as an adaptation of the numerous games, it seems to fall short. Having said that, Paramount + has renewed the show for a second season and it has good streaming numbers, so there is an audience for it. Maybe with this new set of episodes, we will see a story that can bridge the gap between both fans of the game and newcomers to the franchise, and satisfy both groups, as the best adaptations of other media do.

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