The Road to ‘Halo’ is Paved With Good Intentions

The legendary video game becomes mediocre TV sci-fi

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. For one shining moment in the mid-aughts, fans were rabidly anticipating a tentpole summer blockbuster based on one of the biggest video game franchises ever: Halo. Microsoft had a hot, high-octane alien-blasting IP and dreams of billion-dollar grosses, a million-dollar script by Alex Garland, and what seemed like a foolproof stunt designed to hook the studios. The script was delivered by actors dressed in the signature Spartan armor from the series, along with a term sheet that read more like a ransom note: Agree to our demands within 24 hours, or say goodbye to the deal.

The terms were onerous even by Hollywood standards. Microsoft would invest no additional money, maintain creative control, and take the easiest profits; the studio would do the heavy lifting and take on all the risk. The terms were also non-negotiable, a bit of an introductory fuck-you in a town that loves a good haggle.

The clock ticked, and at the end of the day Microsoft had counter-offers from several studios, and a single word from Fox: “Yes.” The project was a go. Peter Jackson came on as a producer; Neill Blomkamp signed on to direct. And then nothing happened.

Well, a lot happened behind the scenes, but the short version is that Halo the movie ended up consigned to the kind of development hell from which few projects emerge, and Microsoft went back to making Halo games and minting money. Hopes for an adaptation seemed dead until Microsoft announced a TV project, with no less august an executive producer than Steven Spielberg … nine years ago.

Which finally brings us to Halo the TV series, the result of a generation of retooling, reshuffling, rebooting and resurrecting. Not available on any traditional network, only streaming on Paramount+ and with a reported budget of $10 million per episode, the series has landed with little fanfare and fan reactions that range from a shrug to outright hostility.

After a look at the first few episodes, it’s the shrug that seems the most fair. Fans waited nearly two decades for this? A plodding, derivative sci-fi trifle with the occasional glorious shoot ’em up? Halo has found its way into the critical Uncanny Valley; in the era of Peak TV, it’s mostly too polished to be dismissed out of hand but the story is too clunky to be a must-watch. Lead Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is The New Black, The Wire) is appropriately gruff as the Master Chief, the super-soldier who’s beginning to develop an unwanted conscience, and the series’ supporting cast gamely tries to keep things interesting between the surprisingly scant battle scenes. Still, what’s between those scenes is largely stuff we’ve seen done better recently, from “warrior hero acquires an innocent ward” (The Mandalorian) to “the dynamics of colonial exploitation” (The Expanse).

To be fair to Halo, the early episodes are still watchable enough to give the series a shot. As generic militaristic sci-fi it works fine. But the show is still missing the visceral excitement of the video games and needs to grow beyond the boilerplate story. There’s a reason the games have captured the imaginations of millions, to the tune of billions of dollars, and the creative team hasn’t found that ineffable something yet. But if the show does turn out to have some legs, you needn’t worry about early cancellation–Paramount has already renewed Halo for a second season. So the apparently impossible adaptation has at least one respawn left. Best of luck, Spartans. It looks like you’re gonna need it.

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Ryan Kallberg

Ryan Kallberg is a writer based in southern California. His work has appeared in The Onion, The A.V. Club and on E! Online. His checkered resumé includes stints as a professional poker player, reality television producer, and sandwich assembler.

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