Paramount’s adaptation of the mega-hit video game series shines when digging into the Master Chief’s long-suppressed sense of self and the schemes of the galaxy’s power players.
Halo is a big deal. It’s the game series that made the Xbox, the game series that drew the blueprint and set the standard for first-person shooters in the 21st century. Its most recent installment, Halo Infinite, drew rave reviews and was a major financial hit. In addition to the stories told in the games themselves, Halo also boasts an extensive transmedia presence—novels, audio dramas, and animated anthologies, amongst other mediums—that’s beloved by the lore-digging side of fandom. That passion, and the infamously spotty history of video-game-to-other-medium adaptations, means that Paramount Plus’ Halo: The Series faces an uphill battle.
Thanks to Pablo Schreiber’s impressive lead turn as Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 and some smart adaptation and storytelling decisions it’s a battle Halo looks to be on its way to winning. Rather than opt for a one-to-one adaptation of series launcher Halo: Combat Evolved or one of the major expanded universe works, the series takes the Detective Pikachu route. It honors its source material by treating it with care while telling a unique tale built for its medium of choice. The strongest moments in the two episodes screened for this review are those that tap into Halo‘s specific storytelling interests from angles where serialized television excels.
Case in point? Scope, scale, and perspective. Halo juggles three main narrative threads: the Master Chief’s adventures and battles, the machinations of the United Nations Space Command—the organization responsible for the SPARTAN-II supersoldier program which created the Master Chief, and the schemes of the Covenant—the alien religious empire which has waged a merciless war against humanity for decades. From this crosscutting, a core theme emerges—one of science fiction’s classic questions: what makes humans human? Halo‘s three threads enable it to approach that question on multiple levels and in multiple ways.
The Master Chief, raised as a perfect soldier after being abducted as a child by the SPARTAN-II program, is on a personal journey—one that pushes him well outside of his comfort zone and forces him to approach both himself and the wider world in ways he is not comfortable with. The UNSC—in particular, Natascha McElhone’s SPARTAN-II mastermind Dr. Catherine Halsey—are grappling with whatever remains of their assorted moral lines amidst ongoing crises. The Covenant’s leaders—most explicitly the Prophet of Mercy (voiced by Julian Bleach)—seek to know more about their foes for a wound-together thread of pragmatic and religious reasons.
The Chief’s journey is the best and most compelling part of Halo thus far. Schreiber is excellent in action and at rest, in and out of the famous armor. As an action performer, Schreiber and doubles Justin Howell, Ivailo Dimitrov, Richard Nagy, and Gyula Tóth (also the series’ fight choreographer) captures the specific space in which Master Chief exists—plainly superhuman but far from invincible against the Covenant’s forces. During quieter moments in the suit, Schreiber builds on the Chief’s unease and discontent anywhere outside combat.
Out of the suit, dramatic a departure as that may be for the famously-armored Master Chief, Schrieber builds on the Chief’s increasing unease and curiosity. John-117 is stiff—not in the “flat performance” sense, but the “I have no idea what I’m doing so I’ll default to what I know” sense. Schreiber and director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders) use this to rubberband tension, pushing the Master Chief as far as they can and seizing on the snapback as both an exclamation point and an opportunity to start stretching in a new direction. It’s very, very good work on Schreiber’s part—both as an individual performance and in concert with his castmates.
Yerin Ha makes for a strong foil to the Master Chief as Kwon, the daughter of two leaders of an anti-UNSC resistance movement who has to reckon with not only the UNSC’s authoritarian nightmare but the fact that Covenant is both real and terrible. McElhone likewise does good work as Halsey, balancing scientific curiosity, genuine affection for the SPARTANs, and a pronounced ruthless streak. Bokeem Woodbine is a strong foil to Schreiber as Soren, a former SPARTAN who made very different choices than John but maintains a guarded affection for his old friend. They work well with Schreiber, and he works well with them.
The Covenant, whose forces keep to the sides of Halo after the extended action setpiece that opens the show, is intriguing thus far. The Prophet of Mercy took a backseat to his peers in the original Halo trilogy and his expanded role here—as well as his relationship with a human (Charlie Murphy) raised by the Covenant as a religious figurehead/key to unlocking the titular Halo—sets him up as a potentially ripe foil to Halsey. Plus, the for the Covenant? The Prophets are worn and sinister. The Elites are mighty and vicious. It’s pretty darn good—which holds true for Halo‘s effects work as a whole.
Where Halo struggles is its wider UNSC storyline. Where the key players are written and performed well, the greater ensemble does not yet have much to work with beyond familiar science-fiction government scheming and counter-scheming. Familiar material is not inherently failed material, but Halo‘s take on backstabbing and covert maneuvers in overt settings (i.e. securing the funding for a blackballed project by announcing a test run at a time when suddenly it seems like a great thing to have) has yet to give its players space to run in beyond exposition—something that stands out all the more when compared to the skill with which the Chief’s story is told.
Two episodes in, I dig Halo: The Series. It’s a neat riff on a neat game, anchored by good action, some intriguing villainous plotting, and an excellent lead turn. If the UNSC side of the story tunes up, I will be all in on it. At the moment, there’s a lot to like about Halo, and I’m looking forward to seeing it develop.
Halo premieres on March 24th, 2022 on Paramount Plus.