Spoilers for the Halo premiere follow. If you want to go in blind, click away now!
This might not be what you were expecting. The Halo TV series doesn’t start with its poster boy Master Chief – but a girl in a town.
War is brewing in the dusty bowl of Madrigal. A cluster of rebels are at loggerheads with the militaristic branch of Earth’s government – the UNSC – and its Spartans. For the downtrodden population of Madrigal, these seven-foot soldiers are boogeymen; killing machines designed only to follow orders and crush anything in their way. As one rebel puts it, in Daft Punk-style fashion, they are: "Faster. Stronger. Smarter." The propaganda being pumped out into the Outer Colonies may call them "humanity’s best weapon," but, for a large chunk of the galaxy, they’re there to keep the UNSC’s iron grip firmly around their throats.
But it’s not the Spartans they should be worrying about. That girl from the opening scene, Kwan Ha (played by Yerin Ha, the show’s most consistent performer at this early stage), has plans to fly away from the rock she calls home. In doing so, she unwittingly stumbles into the invasion of Madrigal by an alien race known as the Covenant.
It’s a brave start for the Halo series to forgo starting without the video game’s iconic lead character front and center, instead choosing to set up its universe, story, and accompanying cast first. By putting us in Kwan’s shoes, the Covenant are smartly painted as a threat as she desperately struggles to survive the onslaught of plasma blasts and rubble.
Unfortunately, the daring opening gambit is let down by the production. The first action sequences are dotted with amateurish cuts and cinematography, weakened further by ropey CGI. Couple that with tame shootouts that see combatants moving so slowly that they may as well be underwater, and it’s not a great first impression.
The sets also look cheap, both when on Madrigal and in ships later on. Some costumes and sand-covered environments are, at best, akin to well-polished fan film. At worst, they look ripped out of Power Rangers. But then John-117 (Pablo Schreiber) drops in and saves the day, in more ways than one.
Ringing the changes
John-117, better known as Master Chief, isn’t like the other Spartans. After clearing out the Covenant and investigating their ship, his inquisitive nature leads him to a mysterious artefact. Far from being a faceless brute, the relic provides glimpses of John’s visions: a happy childhood, a family, a dog, laughter. These serve as the catalyst for the Spartan to start questioning UNSC orders and to act as the guardian angel for Kwan, a loose thread the UNSC desperately wants tied up – and neutralized.
It’s no coincidence that the premiere’s best scenes sees the human side of John rising to the surface. When John sharing a moment with Madrigal’s lone survivor Kwan aboard a UNSC ship, there’s a genuine warmth as the bond grows between the pair. Their dynamic is a bright spot and one that Halo would do well to explore further in future episodes.
That high quality is heightened and contrasted by the stilted, awkward scenes featuring various top UNSC brass. "Genius" scientist Dr. Halsey (Natascha McElhone) and UNSC commander Miranda Keyes (Olive Gray) are each pushing their own agendas when investigating the Covenant but, so far, they lack any real function outside of delivering exposition. The premiere too often grinds to a halt as the pair deliver lines without any real conviction on sparse-looking sets.
Thankfully, when the interests of Halsey, Keyes, and other high-ranking officers align ─ with Master Chief in their sights ─ the episode noticeably picks up again. By the premiere’s end, John disobeys orders and absconds with Kwan, though it would have been more satisfying to see that act of rebellion come a little later in the series. Master Chief instantly rebelling against his puppetmasters instead feels a little unearned.
Despite that, having Master Chief as an all-powerful fugitive is a hard premise to beat. Yet the show’s momentum away from John-117 is worrying, with the UNSC sub-plots already in danger of flatlining. Luckily, the brief glimpse we get of the Covenant on its floating tendril-covered city of High Charity is far more intriguing.
Arc of the Covenant
Yes, there’s a human working with the Covenant. Makee (Charlie Murphy) clearly holds some position of power among the alien race as she converses with a high-and-mighty Covenant Prophet. She’s a mysterious hook that draws in Halo diehards and curious sci-fi fans alike. While her appearance may be fleeting, it’s enough to flesh out the aliens as more than just one-dimensional villains. A job well done.
Like the Covenant tease, Halo’s approach to video game references and Easter eggs shows real restraint. Marvel and Star Wars should take notes.
The frantic beeping of Master Chief’s armor as it depletes, for instance, will be instantly familiar to those who spent their formative years on the Xbox Live battlegrounds of Blood Gulch and Ascension. Similarly, the gentle swell of the series’ iconic choral music is used just once, hitting at the exact right time to elevate a good scene into a great one. These moments come sparingly and are used to good effect. That’s thanks to the smart creative decision to sprinkle these in as storytelling devices, not as cheap parlor tricks designed to overwhelm the audience with the low-hanging fruit of nostalgia.
Clumsy and gimmicky first-person sequences aside, the nods and winks to Master Chief’s video game past never take away from what’s appearing on screen. This is, as is clear from the start, a completely fresh take on the Halo universe. It’s a creative decision that might leave a passionate sub-section of the fanbase bristling, but the commitment to going all-in with remixing the franchise has to be commended.
In terms of the premiere’s story setup, Halo’s first hour has done its job admirably. John and Kwan have fled, the facade of the UNSC is already falling away, and secrets have come tumbling out on the Covenant side. Each offers just enough mystery and intrigue for the audience to return for a second helping on Paramount Plus, a new streamer that’s desperately in need of a killer app in a crowded marketplace.
The Halo series should still take a leaf from the Spartans’ book, however. It needs to be faster, with fewer UNSC scenes to slow things to a crawl. It needs to be stronger and go all-in on Kwan and John-117’s fledgling relationship. It needs to be smarter. Better use of camera shots, sets, and CGI will mask low production values. Once those are tidied up, Master Chief has a clear shot at finishing what is hopefully the first fight of many – but maybe not in the way some would have expected. After all, this is a story about Master Chief and the girl he’s trying to save.
New episodes of Halo stream weekly every Thursday on Paramount Plus.