Or, how I got my site canceled by CBS (that, if you’ve not heard, is a jab at CBS issuing takedown demands at Youtube reviews for their new show that were, shall we say, less than glowing).
Hollywood has a long, and shall we say, storied reputation when it comes to adaptive works. Particularly when it comes to adapting properties from the medium of video games. While there have been success stories they’ve both been few and far between as well as confined to the last few years (and often outside of Hollywood’s clutching grasp), leading to … Well, let’s just say I’ve had theories on how Hollywood has managed to take again and again something that seems like a sure bet and screw it up in a way that seems too inept to be anything but deliberate.
Now, with Paramount+’s (already a real fount of originality there) new Halo series, I must once again note that my theory seems more accurate than ever.
I’ll be open up front: This show is a mess.
Actually, let me start with something before that, simply to stave off CBS’s most common current defense, which has been ‘people just don’t like it because they’re desperate fanboys who can’t handle something not being 100% faithful to the original.’
Yes, I grew up playing video games (parents attempts otherwise notwithstanding). Halo came out when I was in high school, and I thoroughly enjoyed it in college and to date still have the Master Chief Collection installed on my PC. I put a ton of time into Halo 5, put my thoughts on Halo Inifinite right here on the site, and so yes, I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time.
However, I am also an author, and no stranger to the rule that yes, you do need to make some concessions when adapting things from one medium to another. I have no “demand” that video game adaptations in film or shows be one-to-one with their counterparts. For example, one of my favorite video game movies to date is Sonic the Hedgehog, which admittedly did have to roll back their utterly horrifying design, but after they did so delivered a great, fun film that was full of heart and laughs while also still being true to the series elements that spawned it. Where there changes? Yes. But those changes worked and we designed in conjunction with the elements that were kept in order to make both come together to a harmonious whole.
Detective Pikachu is another movie that handled this well, staying very true to the elements of Pokemon that could be put on the big screen, while telling a slightly different—but no less fun—plot from most of the games.
Point being, I know sometimes you need to change things to make a story work in a new medium. I also know that there are plenty of time people get their hands on something and change it just to try and make it their own, without regard for whether or not those changes enhance or detract from the final product.
In other words, I’m more than willing to set aside devotion to a “core” setting and embrace changes for a new medium provided those changes are for the betterment of what the audience recieve.
And the Halo show? Hoo boy … This … This is not that. The Halo show is full of changes, and none of them are good. In fact, they’re more on par with “narrative disaster” than anything else. These wholly feel about “change for the sake of change” with no thought or regard to even the show’s own setting and the impact the changes have on it. The end result is a mess of show full of poor direction, plot holes, narrative inconsistency, and changes to the plot that are frankly boggling in their foolishness.
Buckle up and hit the jump, because this is going to be rough.
But at least it won’t be as rough as actually watching an episode of this show.
Yeah, I know that last line was painful. Believe me, if you’ve seen the show, you know already.
Let’s talk about some of the smaller missteps first. The little stuff. To start with, let’s talk about the cinematography.
Halo feels distinctly un-Halo in its scenes and shooting. Which is because it is clearly supposed to feel like The Expanse (which if you haven’t seen it, is a fantastic show). How clearly, you might ask? Within the first ten minutes, a friend of mine who had only seen clips of The Expanse turned to me and said “Is that the same actor from The Expanse?” while gesturing at a prominent character on screen. To which I replied “No” and received the reply of “But they really wanted it to be, didn’t they.” At which point several others in the group I was with, again of whom none had watched more than a few episodes at most of The Expanse, chimed in that the sets, shooting, and yes, even the admiral on screen, were all clearly designed aping Amazon’s epic show.
Except what worked for The Expanse doesn’t work for Halo, and the dissonance is jarring. In part this is because the directors of Halo don’t seem to understand why Amazon’s show did what it did with its shots. They don’t seem to understand that The Expanse framed and setup its shots and sets for a clear purpose. They were designed to invoke the alienness and emptiness of space, or the brutality of Belters struggling to survive in harsh conditions. Halo mimics those shots, but without the cause or reasoning behind them, creating a shooting style that feels wildly random at best, and at worst outright inconsistent with the tone and atmosphere they seemed to be trying to go for.
In effect, it called to mind a review of the film Battlefield Earth I once read said that the ‘director had clearly heard of tilt shots existing, and so stuck them everywhere he could, without rhyme or reason, without stopping to think that such shots might have a particular place, reason, or purpose for their existence.’
That’s the cinematography in Halo in a nutshell: A mismatched mélange of sets and shots stolen from a better show and applied without any thought to the reason or purpose behind the original show’s use of said shots.
Let me give you a direct example: A very common shot in The Expanse is what I call the “space scrapyard” shot. It’s used a lot over the course of the series. A character comes to a shipyard or a location that’s been bombed (this happens a lot in that show, now that I think about it) and they walk through the area where work is being done while discussing plot stuff. This is to show the audience stuff that’s going on, from the destruction and desperation being wrought by bombing attacks with people cleaning up hallways, to ships being repaired and refitted while the characters talk.
In the second episode of Halo, we get a complete mimicry of this type of shot … except that it makes no sense whatsover. The protagonist arrives at a “smugglers haven” of sorts and walks out of the airlock to see … a seething mass of people who are alternately constructing and tearing apart the hallway by the airlock? I legitimately laughed at the guy “scrapping” what looked like some sort of structural support in the background while people wandered by on “business.”
It’s mimicry, but without and concept of why the original did what it was doing. The Expanse used such scenes to deepen the setting and narrative, to show the audience what was going on. Meanwhile, Halo is clearly doing it because “The Expanse did it, so we have to” without any regard for the reasoning or purpose behind those scenes. Leading to … random people scrapping or building a random airlock just because.
The show’s shots and sets are rife with this kind of bizarre inconsistency. Worse, it’s clearly only in the show because The Expanse was big. Nevermind that The Expanse tells a very different story from Halo, both in tone, setting, and approach. The Expanse was the last popular Sci-Fi show, therefore some executive likely decided that Halo needed to be that. Rather than its own thing.
Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if the Halo show had done one of two things: used the shots and setup its painfully mimicking properly, or held its own vision.
Instead it’s done neither, creating a show that doesn’t feel like anything but a cheap knock-off of another, better Sci-Fi show when it comes to its shots and cinematography.
Now, this next bit might be a weird one for some who aren’t familiar with either property, but next I want to talk about the sound design.
This is one area the show mostly gets right, wisely lifting a lot of sound effects from the games in ways that work and fit thematically.
What doesn’t work, however, is the music. This show’s score is all over the place, tonally. And, oddly enough, the main themes and most common musical hits? They sound like another Sci-Fi video game hit, rather than Halo. They sound like Mass Effect.
This is jarring for two reasons. The first is that the Halo theme is iconic. And I don’t mean that word in its common, unintended use. The Halo theme is instantly recognizable to even those that haven’t played the games. It is played on radio stations, performed in concerts, and is easily as famous as the Tetris theme. Here, give it a listen:
It is very strange then for the majority of the show’s music to instead be very reminiscent of this theme:
Right down to the tones and style. It’s bizarre for a number of reasons, the first being that almost any fan of Sci-Fi scores in the last several decades is going to be very familiar with both and instantly recognize the Halo show’s score as being far closer to Mass Effect than it ever is to Halo. Secondly, while Mass Effect‘s score is far from bad (as I said, it’s one of the standouts of the last few decades), why buy Halo and then not make Halo? It’d be like sitting down to watch a new Star Trek show and being hit with the John Williams Star Wars score blasting from the speakers. It’s not a bad score at all, but … Why would you do that?
The only reason this isn’t the largest utterly mystifying decision of the show is because as we’ll get to, there are much larger bizarre mysteries when it comes to the show’s production. As is, the score is serviceable, but very discordant. Rarely, it is Halo. Usually, it’s Mass Effect. And sometimes it sounds like other Sci-Fi scores … none of which really fit together either. The ultimate effect is that it feels like there was no direction at all given to the sound team, and they just sort of picked a grab-bag of whatever they wanted to do. Or as an alternative, each producer over the show (and there were many) had a very different idea and all of them were yelling at the sound team to do it, and so we received a very mixed bag.
Oh, and the audio mixing was awful. So many times a random musical note in the score would overpower the whispered, Expanse style-dialogue. When The Expanse did it, they were wise to keep everything else quiet so that audience could hear the dialogue. Here, when two people speak on a windy building, it’s like the show really wanted us to feel that wind and realize that it’s really good for disguising a conversation, because you’ll only hear half of it.
All right, with those two critiques out of the way, let’s move to the largest and most dumbfounding decisions made with this show: The completely nonsensical (and often outright dumb) decision to “dumb down” a lot of the characters and plot.
Again, as I said earlier, I have no issue with changes that make for a better story or presentation. Halo has made a lot of changes.
And they are bad changes. The kind that dumb down the plot or cut whole motivational elements from the original story while adding nothing worthwhile to make up for it. The result is something that at moments almost feels insulting to the intelligence of the audience, as if the producers wanted a Sci-Fi story aimed at the audience of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo rather than a Sci-Fi show.
The biggest, and most boggling of all of these, is the removal of The Great Journey.
For those of you that have not played the games, The Great Journey is the primary motivation of the alien organization known as the Covenant that is attacking mankind. See, the Covenant found these ancient alien artifacts and built a religion around them, the primary goal of this religion being the titular “Halos” the series is named after. These massive ringworlds were all over this forerunner race’s iconography, and key to the “Great Journey.” In other words, the Covenant see these rings as holy artifacts that were used by the forerunner to ascend into a paradisiacal afterlife. Their aim is to activate these rings, and ascend.
A massive key component of the original series’ story and motivation for the Covenant. Why are they waging war on mankind? Because these artifacts activate around mankind, suggesting that the forerunner didn’t ascend and that the Covenant religion is a sham. In order to protect this secret, the Covenant leaders wage a holy crusade against mankind for “corrupting” the sacred artifacts and make us out to be demons.
Oh, and those rings? They turn out to be weapons of last resort that sterilize the galaxy, built by the forerunners to stop a very nasty thing indeed I won’t spoil here.
That’s in the games. It’s a neat motivation and reveal.
The show, as of episode two, cut it entirely. That’s right, there is no Great Journey. The audience is told by a human who was a covenant captive that the covenant want the rings because they know they are weapons, and will be using them to kill mankind more effectively.
That’s it. Gone is the Great Journey. Gone is the huge revelation that the rings are weapons. Gone, presumably, is the schism in the Covenant as the truth comes out. Just: Aliens bad, want kill humans, ring will let us kill humans faster.
This is an astonishingly terrible change, made all the more awful by the fact that it isn’t replaced with anything save “aliens bad kill humans pew pew.”
Look, even my Dad, who will willfully watch and enjoy the worst B-movies with not a care in the world, when presented with this detail, frowned and asked what the whole point of the Covenant was if they didn’t have the Great Journey, and why they’d even care about humans.
And sadly, while this is the largest offender in “changes made to the show that bring no improvement,” it’s only one of many.
Miranda Keyes, for example, has been given a “progressive” makeover. In the games, she’s a young but decorated and respected Captain in the UNSC Navy, commander of the frigate In Amber Clad and later the Forward Unto Dawn. She’s friend of Chief (the protag) as well as often a source of direction as well as a commander who often leads from the front when things get rough. Along with Sergeant Johnson, she’s a staunch character and a good example of a strong female protagonist over the course of the games (even if not without faults).
In the show? Well, Johnson is gone, and apparently Miranda Keyes’ captaincy and skill were problematic, because now she’s a whiny and sociopathic propaganda officer. That latter bit about “sociopathic” might be down to the directing orders, but in her first scene she smiles and grins while telling a teenage girl how sorry she is that her whole family was just killed by the Covenant, because she can use the footage as a promotional for the UNSC war effort.
The only other scenes we’ve gotten with her have been of her complaining to her father about one thing or another.
What does this change do for the show? Moral ambiguity? Not with this plot! But is her rewrite doing anything interesting?
No. Nothing. And I don’t know how her entire character consisting of “grinning while talking about civilians being slaughtered and complaining in every other scene” is somehow better than who she was in the games. It’s a frankly baffling decision.
Other elements add nothing to the story as well. For whatever reason, the shows writers decided to change the lore reason for the insurrectionist movement (which was overreach and feeling abandoned yet tightly controlled, like colonies in real-world history) to, wait for it … shortages and fights over space oil!
Yes, that’s right, Hollywood just cannot move past Big Oil and the Middle East. But hey, it’s an excuse to show the UNSC putting a literal warlord in charge of a colony world and shooting teenage soldiers on screen! DRAMA!
Oh, and UNSC is unambiguously evil here. To a cartoonish degree which, in one scene, creates a narrative rift big enough to drive a starship through when the shows writers weirdly stick to a single point of lore from the parent series that completely flies in the face of the whole discussion they’ve been having.
Get this: In this canon, Spartans like Master Chief are mentally programmed and mind controlled, their memories erased. Better yet, that’s not the final step. We sit in on a meeting of admirals discussing how the next step is to upload UNSC-loyal AIs into each spartan’s brain, replacing the spartan with a machine mind that is perfectly efficient and obedient. Oh, and as they point out, very directly kills the spartan. But that’s fine, they’re soldiers.
They then address an original series lore point and make sure that the AI’s they’re killing the spartans with are “ethically sourced,” reminding themselves (and the audience) that the best AIs come from flash-cloning human minds and killing them as an AI model. They mention how this is ethically and morally reprehensible, and are assured that the AIs that, again, they are planning on killing all their spartans with, are ethically sourced and not from flash minds.
Dissonance much? This is a change to the original lore that does nothing but make the show feel disconnected with itself, and contributes little else.
In line with these changes, let’s talk about unmasking Master Chief. Yes, this has been a big controversy. I’ll try to make my stance on this matter clear.
First, Chief in the games/books/expanded universe everywhere but the show makes a direct point to never, if he can help it, be out of his armor. He feels naked without it, because it’s a part of him, and even when safe he rarely takes it off. In this way, he’s similar to another masked character from a recent and very successful TV show: The Mandalorian.
I want to talk about The Mandalorian for a moment. When it was announced that the show’s protagonist would not remove his mask, it was the recipient of a lot of mockery. Hollywood has for ages assured the world that audiences could not empathize with a character who’s face they could not see (largely, I’d guess, because they wanted to market actors, not characters). When The Mandalorian said that it would not show the protagonist’s face (though we know they have three times over two seasons), many assumed the show was dead before it ever came out.
Then it came out, and it was clear that audiences could empathize with a faceless mask protagonist … It just took a lot of extra work to make it land right.
Halo makes it clear in the first episode that the producers either didn’t believe Mandalorian was a repeatable success, or they just didn’t want to go through the effort. Or maybe Chief’s actor has it in his contract that he’s obligated to show his face the majority of the time.
Regardless, this is a change to the lore that feels unneeded and cheap, because Chief showing his face has done nothing for the show that couldn’t have been done with the helmet, and in the wake of The Mandalorian showing off how gripping a character’s use of the mask could be, makes Halo feel like it deliberately chose not to follow the same path because it didn’t trust itself to.
Again, I go back to my father, who loves his B-movies and plays Halo largely for firefight, who when I mentioned that Chief immediately took off his helmet in the very first episode replied with ‘What!? But he never does that! Why’d he take his helmet off?’
In a way, it reminds me of another mask convention, where the very first Spider-Man movie (and quite a bit of the second and third) with Tobey Maguire removed Spider-Man’s mask at every opportunity, because again it was believed that audiences wouldn’t be able to empathize or understand a superhero that didn’t show their face even during fights.
Then Marvel’s MCU came along and blew that out of the water, with dozens of characters doing long fights and emotional moments while wearing masks and costumes.
Halo then, feels like a throwback to the early 2000s when no one trusted an audience, but in the modern climate, it feels like a deliberate snub at the audience itself.
One other frankly boggling change that runs right into this same sort of mindset is the human antagonist.
“What’s that?” you ask? “I thought the Covenant were aliens?” Well, they are. In the games. Here, they’re aliens … at the beck and call of a human woman? Because, you know, audiences can’t empathize with aliens, so we need to make a “human connection” to the Covenant. So we’ve got this new character invented for the show who all the Covenant leaders—yes, even their prophets, the big bads of the games—pay deference to.
Oh, and be ready to see her naked after a bizarre striptease that’s more confusing and amusing than it is erotic. The moment in which she looked down at her own breasts (which are, in this shot, at least, off camera) with a look of amazed wonderment brought an immediate reaction from one audience member who blurted out “What are those? I’ve never seen them before! Where did they come from?” which had us laughing during what was clearly supposed to be a “Yay, ogle the naked woman” moment (again, this is the same show that changed Miranda Keyes to her current incarnation for “progressive reasons”).
Also, where does a naked striptease come into Halo again? What’s added to the story and show by putting it in?
Ultimately, despite some nice touches here and there, the Halo show is not worth your time. The sweeping changes are just bizarre but downright confusing and poorer narratively in every way over the original lore. The acting is poor at best, downright weird at worst (see the striptease or Miranda’s sociopathic grin). The cinematography and scoring jarring and inconsistent, playing at mimicry without any idea why what it’s mimicking made the decisions it did. There is little to be gained from watching it outside of an appreciation of much better told and rearranged stories and a few neat nods at props.
I’m sorry Hollywood, but your insistence on “fixing” what wasn’t broken to begin with, especially when the “fix” is more broken and discordant than the original ever was. If you want to watch a Halo show or movie, I can unequivocally say that you will find more character, motivation, and coherent plot simply watching a Youtube compilation of the original game’s cutscenes than you will watching this show.
Is that harsh? Yes. But deserved? In my opinion, also yes. Change for the sake of change, especially when you’re not putting any real effort into that change, is never a good idea. If the Halo show had given any good reason for their myriad of changes to exist, well … that would have been something interesting.
Instead we’re left with a jarring mess of blah that will come out, be consumed by a few, and quickly forgotten about, save as another footnote in the history books for “Game Adaptations that had no idea what they were doing.”
If you’re looking for a fantastic show based on a video-game, go watch Arcane. But unless you want to destroy your liver with a drinking game or enjoy watching the show equivalent of 2012 meets Moonfall, spend your time (and money) elsewhere.