Review by C.J. Bunce
If you agree with us that the biggest landmark in the visual representation of futurism in science fiction over the last several years was Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Netflix’s Altered Carbon, then you might also see something similarly new and refreshing–and yet new and different–happening with the new Paramount+ series Halo. As I described it last month here at borg, Halo’s first episode was a dense set-up of a series opener, establishing the world building, the opposing factions and key characters in this new universe extracted from the video game franchise. But the series’ second episode, titled “Unbound,” doesn’t miss a beat in showing viewers an even more layered science fiction story is in play, with plenty of visual surprises.
Is the sci-fi of the series derivative? Absolutely, but its use of the tropes is deftly intertwined with production design (by Sophie Becher) worthy of the best sci-fi movie franchises: space travel scenes incorporating an innovative use of ship tech and sound, costumes that integrate both a lived-in world and a cutting-edge era of technology, and visual effects audiences haven’t seen this way before. And now that the actors and characters are all established, you may get the feeling the combination of everything is as good as–and has promise to be better–than any classic literary piece of science fiction that has come to life on the small screen.
Already the political machinations of the disparate parties seem like we’re watching an episode of a long-established series plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea’s Fleet Admiral Hood is simply stunning and authoritative as the leader of the UNSC Navy. He brings enormous credibility to the show, even if you don’t recognize his sci-fi street cred. The mad scientist of the story, Natascha McElhone’s secretive, practically Red Skull-inspired Dr. Halsey is already poised to unleash any kind of surprise in coming episodes. Yes, the star is Pablo Schreiber’s Master Chief, Spartan 117, who at first seemed dull by design, but the writers are quickly taking him through a take on Robert Duvall’s similarly affected character in George Lucas’s THX-1138.
We’ve seen Bokeem Woodbine going back to The X-Files, in the Total Recall remake, in Riddick, in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (and dozens of other shows), but in Halo he’s creating the next swaggering, rebel hero. And his hidden lair is fantastic. The supporting characters of episode two shine, too. Take Burn Gorman’s ruthless Vinsher Grath. Yes, he has that sci-fi villain name (what else could he be but a villain with that name?), but the audience only gets to watch his actions via futuristic view screens–this is not a guy we want to see up close and personal. Contrast him with Johann Myers’ prisoner with inside information called Reth.
Reth and several elements of the second episode feel like they were pulled from Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall. Yerin Ha’s young lead Kwan Ha is wearing fabrics like those incorporated in costumes by Deborah Everton for future’s past in Star Trek: First Contact. Giovanni Lipari’s entire universe of costumes in Halo shies away from the fail point of many a science fiction series–how often is it so obvious the same costume designer, makeup artist, or hair designer created the look of both the protagonists and their alien enemies? As with the first episode this translates to the CG look of the Covenant aliens, who may just be the best-designed alien creations of any sci-fi show yet–on TV or at the movies. The visual effects in the space sequences are so good you will probably barely notice them as they take backseat to the characters and their story. And that dark and rainy bleaker side of tech noir that has probably been done to death now is not a part of the ghosts of sci-fi’s past that the show taps into visually.
We still haven’t been given much time with Charlie Murphy, the Covenant’s human key asset named Makee. But the writers have set her up nicely as the counterpart–and possible future partner?–with Master Chief. We also hope more is to come from Shabana Azmi’s Admiral Parangosky and Olive Gray’s Dr. Keyes. And we’ve only seen glimpses of the rest of the Spartans and those excellent space suits. With these characters showrunners Steven Kane and Kyle Killen seem to be building the kind of serialized season-long storytelling that Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine fans clamor about.
Edge of Tomorrow, Altered Carbon, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Total Recall, THX-1138, Ender’s Game, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Dune, Gears of War, Starship Troopers, Deep Space Nine, and Battlestar Galactica–that’s some major sci-fi to be compared to in only a second episode. There’s even a bit of an echo of the relationship of The Mandalorian with Grogu in Master Chief and Kwan Ha. So the show has plenty to live up to. But so far it’s looking good.
This is not only military sci-fi, not just a shoot ’em up video game tie-in, but a full-fledged science fiction universe we’re watching unfold. And we’re beginning to see what that $10 million per episode was spent on: a TV series that looks like a big-budget sci-fi movie. Someone at Paramount has a plan, because production of the second season is underway, meaning you need not worry that you’ll be investing in the first run of episodes only to face a cancelation, as happens so frequently lately.
It’s a potential sleeper series that you should be watching. Catch new episodes of Halo weekly Thursdays, streaming only on Paramount+.