Paramount+’s big-budget retelling of the hit video game series inches closer to Bungie’s glory days, though not without some bloat.
Paramount+’s sprawling adaptation of the Halo series has been a huge gamble from the jump. Adapting video games to live-action has long been a fool’s errand; they either change the material so much that the game is barely recognizable or adhere so strictly to the game’s chronology and iconography that you might as well pick up a controller. 2023 saw a few rare exceptions to that rule, with the box-office success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie and the critical success of The Last of Us.
Halo, meanwhile, suffered through a bloated, messy first season filled with drawn-out, dull space opera storylines and special effects that made the game series’ cutscenes look like Caravaggio. (That said, our reviewer saw the strengths of season one more positively than I.)
Season 2, however, is a huge, green-booted step in the right direction for the series, even as its same streaming-sag problems remain in smaller quantities. It’s tighter, more focused, and — most importantly — recognizes more of the elements that made the game series so compelling since its premiere in 2001. Its two-part premiere bears that out: take its opening minutes, in which Silver Team, led by series icon John-117, aka Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber), attempts to evacuate a planet soon to be overrun by the alien Covenant.
Chief goes out to recover a group of lost Marines, only to be beset by a squad of hulking Elites in thick mountainous fog: The ensuing melee is thrilling, Halo having clearly figured out its special effects a bit better this season (or at least, how to hide the flaws more effectively) — the four episodes provided for review are chock full of these kinds of high-concept bash-em-ups, often shot in ambitious long takes that chuck old Halo into the realm of Children of Men.
But unlike the games, Halo can’t just be about beefy super-soldiers bashing in squishy alien heads; showrunners Kyle Killen and Steven Kane continue to expand the space-opera confines of their world beyond Silver Team. Season 1 holdovers Soren (Bookeem Woodbine) and Kwan Ha (Yerin Ha) remain, albeit in more isolated storylines on “The Rubble,” a ragtag collective of asteroids that represents the dregs of humanity. We also get peeks at the fate of Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone), hidden away in a gilded cage of sorts after she fled the UNSC at the end of Season 1. These subplots are a bit more focused than before but still feel like vestiges of the “old” show, one that wanted to shape Halo into something more akin to The Expanse or Game of Thrones.
However, Killen and Kane smartly keep the focus more on the SPARTANs than the rag-team ensemble of sci-fi archetypes around them. Season 1 lacked the team dynamic that made the games so fun; this time around, John’s Silver Team has a lot more personality and far more to do. Kate Kennedy’s Kai struggles to find her place after removing her emotion-blocking “pellet”; Natasha Culzac’s Riz tests the limits of her abilities (and her nerve). Even Bentley Kalu’s Vannak, arguably the most personality-less of the team last season, acquires a dry sense of humor after taking his pellet out. Their team dynamics, especially as the series works to marginalize them after their failures in the opening of the premiere, are a lot more fun to take in this time around.
This brings us to Master Chief himself, played by a bulked-up Schreiber who spends more time than ever before out of his signature power armor. (With his beefier stature and soft-spoken nature, his Chief feels like Space Jack Reacher, without the Sherlock Holmes-ian intellect.) It’s a risky move to rob the series’ mascot of his iconography, particularly since the game series hinges so much on the Chief’s mysterious nature.
But this is TV, and we need a main character we can actually get to know; Season 2 makes smart use of this conceit. Stationed on Reach and increasingly sidelined (and in mourning for Cortana, from whom he was severed to save his life after Season 1’s near-death experience), John feels like a lost, angry puppy, desperate for purpose and lashing out at the bureaucratic forces that want to keep him in line. Chief among those is Joseph Morgan’s suitably slimy ONI operative Ackerson, whom the series lends a tragic strain even as he screams “big sniveling baddie.”
But the biggest improvement in Halo is its presentation, even if by a matter of degrees. In addition to the improved camerawork and effects, the show’s music — now by Bear McCreary — now more accurately captures the bombast of the games. (The opening title sequence, previously set to a nondescript bit of electronic droning, is a haunting recitation of the games’ original choral theme.)
The story is also clearly trying to push itself more in the direction of the games as well: most of the first four episodes take place on the ill-fated planet of Reach, which game fans know is set for a resounding defeat at the hands of the Covenant. The episodes reviewed so far clearly lead up to such a conflict, and the results are suitably epic and tense — even as they end up making decisions that promise radical deviations from the games’ chronology.
It’s these teases of familiar battles to come while offering new wrinkles to the existing characters, that make Halo‘s second season such an improvement over the first. The upgrades aren’t night and day; the show still suffers from some leaden plotting and a sluggish pace whenever Chief and Silver Team aren’t on screen. Even so, the show feels like it’s taken out its own emotion blockers, and is learning how to feel for the first time.
Halo Season 2 streams Thursdays on Paramount+.