A flawed, but effective quasi-prequel that proves that Halo could work on film.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
The Halo franchise is one of the most successful video game series in the world. It also happens to be one of my personal favorites. Outside of the games, Bungie, Microsoft and the recently-formed 343 Industries have made efforts to expand the fictional universe. Books, comics and even an animé in the form of Halo Legends have come to fruition, although the series had yet to expand to film- until now. With the release of Halo 4, Microsoft decided to create a mini-series of five episodes to serve as a prequel to the game and introduce new people to the series. Now that Forward Unto Dawn is on the Internet in its entirety, how did Halo transition over to film?
Instead of the four years that pass by before Master Chief and Cortana happen upon the Forerunner planet of Requiem in the actual game, Forward Unto Dawn is mostly based in 2525 at the very onset of the Human-Covenant War. Sure, in the beginning of each episode we are shown snippets of Cortana speaking to the frozen hero as time passes by, but mostly the overarching story follows Thomas Lasky – a UNSC space cadet at the Corbulo Academy of Military Science that is currently struggling with issues concerning his fellow cadets, family and also his own self. For example, he receives depressing messages from his brother is an ODST that gets deployed into a skirmish with Insurrections, and he also has allergic reactions to cryosleep that eventually render him eligible for medical discharge. Now, the first episodes of the series focus on him trying to resolve these issues during various training exercises, and in complete honesty this focus nearly killed my interest in the entire series.
I am completely fine with character development as long as the dialogue is interesting, and some of it is, in the way it relates to the expanded Halo universe. However, mostly the exposition of Thomas Lasky is clichéd; anyone who has seen an underdog story could predict what happens to his character. This brings down the pace amidst the first few episodes, especially since there is little to no action. I had expected to see something considering that this series is adapted from a first-person shooter franchise. It doesn’t exactly help that the supporting characters are unmemorable, aside from a cadet played by Anna Popplewell of Narnia fame (she is known for playing Susan Pevensie in the series).
However, the series has a huge shift in tone and pace at the climax of Episode 3. At this point, the Covenant attacks the Academy, resulting in disastrous losses of life as a battle rages on across the base. After some of the surviving cadets of Lasky’s training squad don armor and retrieve weapons from the armory, they are rescued from an Elite by a young Master Chief. The interesting thing is that these action-packed segments of the series actually have much more emotional resonance than those of the more contemplative, character-driven opening episodes. Sure, they still have a couple of blatant clichés, but otherwise the convincing performances from the two leads, high production values and tight direction help the series to go out on a seriously high note in the final two episodes. One reason why I love war films is because the best ones explore the themes of sacrifice and honor quite successfully, which carries into Forward Unto Dawn as well. The last 30 minutes of the series kept me engaged on an emotional level. I was also satisfied that even though Master Chief has a major role in the last two episodes, he doesn’t overshadow the main characters of the series. John-117 is one of my favorite video game characters, and I’m glad he has relevance in the story, but I’ll take a balanced narrative over a character that completely steals the show any day. Speaking of which, I found the way that the story ties together Lasky and Master Chief to be clever, and it will be interesting for me to see if the game itself explores their relationship when I play through it this week.
The performances delivered by the two leads are quite good and are crucial to why Forward Unto Dawn is ultimately successful. Tom Green provides the right amount of subtlety to his role, especially in scenes in which his character is damaged by events in the story. He never overdoes anything in the series even when the action becomes very intense towards the end, and I was pleased to see a teenage actor showing such promise as a potential star with true dramatic range. I couldn’t help but think of Susan Pevensie when Anna Popplewell appeared on screen – especially since she keeps her signature accent here – but even so she was fine in her role, and she had great chemistry with Green. Where Forward Unto Dawn truly shines is in its production values- for a webseries produced on $10 million, it has special effects good enough to warrant a theatrical release. That said, I was annoyed with the camera work for a couple of reasons: the cinematography and editing are sometimes are a little choppy in dialogue scenes, and I felt that director Stewart Hendler should have relied on slow motion less. Slow motion is fine if used sparingly, but there are entire shots that drag on for perhaps 20-30 seconds in slo-mo, and that got under my skin to a certain degree. Nevertheless, Forward Unto Dawn is a technical marvel when it comes to webseries, and the action is exciting – albeit mildly disturbing to watch at times since the realism of the violence has been amped up from the games. Sound is absolutely top-notch, for the gun effects have an innate, thunderous quality to them, while they also are faithful to the weapons in the games. We also get great, iconic shots of Covenant villains, visor HUD’s akin to those in the games, along with good ol’ Master Chief himself in some particularly spectacular shots.
Yes, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn has its flaws. Were it not for the clichéd story elements and slow pacing of the first three episodes, this could have been a game changer for webseries. Even so, once the story picks up the series becomes exciting, intense, emotional and special for both casual audiences and veteran Halo fans. If there was any video game franchise that could have the potential of becoming a successful film series, Halo would be it, and Forward Unto Dawn proves this. Despite its imperfections, those who enjoyed Microsoft’s flagship franchise should check this series out on YouTube or Xbox Live. Even newcomers may want to view it; this tale of the Human-Covenant War is an interesting one indeed.