In New Paramount+ Streaming Series, ‘HALO’ Needs Space: NPR
Here’s what to say with confidence about the new Paramount+ series HALO after watching the two episodes made available to the press for review: Not much.
At first glance, the central plot, involving a piece of alien technology that unlocks the main character’s memories, evokes a little too much of the antiquated sci-fi tropes that have been repeated over and over (RoboCop, Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc). And if that wasn’t enough, the recovered memory items appear to be tied to a Chosen One story; it’s hard to fathom that we’re still doing it in the 21st century, let alone the 26th, when the show takes place.
But there is an attempt, as in the video game franchise on which the series is based, to build a sci-fi universe filled with factions – disparate cultures advancing different goals in a way that creates uneasy alliances and shifting allegiances. And in crafting all this ostensibly fluffy conflict, an attempt to create rich and satisfying television.
A rich and satisfying television, such as… The extent.
And therein lies the problem: the series seems determined to ignore the more than two decades that have passed since the game’s launch. HALO: Combat Evolvedand the many sci-fi properties that have, at this time, incorporated many of the game’s once-innovative story elements.
The Expanse, for example, erupted in 2015 by confidently pitting a host of competing interplanetary interests against each other and letting each group exhibit moral flaws, so we found ourselves constantly rooting for and against the same characters at different times. This The Syfy (and later, Amazon) series also harbors an acute distrust of government and the military, and has featured several storylines involving the sacrifice of human lives in the interests of political expediency.
Some of that is here in HALO. But it’s more gestural than viscerally demonstrated: instead of The extentIn Byzantine Political Maneuvers, we get a single scene of an admiral (Shabana Azmi) warning the ambitious head of the show’s Spartan super-soldier program (Natascha McElhone) about the thing she does almost immediately.
There’s also the nagging fact that the series’ protagonist, Master Chief, is an armored soldier (Pablo Schreiber) wearing a face-obscuring helmet, who incongruously takes a vulnerable orphan (Yerin Ha) under his metal wing.
Again: The HALO source material predates both The extent and The Mandalorianbut the show doesn’t seem interested in even slightly considering it.
According to the producers, the Paramount+ HALO The series sets its storyline in a universe entirely separate from that established in the games, giving them the ability to create new conflicts that still manage to avail themselves of familiar gameplay characteristics. This looks promising, as it means they can mix it up a bit and distance themselves from other similar properties. Schreiber ends up spending time out of the helmet. And while the first episode features a macabre battle between the Spartans and villains players of the video game series will recognize (with plasma swords! Woo!), the second episode takes Schreiber and Ha to a visually impressive space redoubt composed of a cluster of tenuous asteroids connected by a series of cables.
The show definitely looks dear, which bodes well. (Even more heartening is that he knows a sci-fi show has to change the damn setting once in a while, The book of Boba Fett.)
On this asteroid outpost, we meet a character played by Bokeem Woodbine, who instantly infuses the proceedings with a welcome degree of warmth and humor noticeably absent from the first episode. It may turn out to be an example of the series growing into itself and acknowledging what it lacks, or it may turn out to be a unique outlier.
If you’ve played the games, it’s fun to guess how the series will incorporate various elements (see above, in re:plasma swords, woo.). And Schreiber does his best to portray a stoic character grappling with his conscience for the first time.
If Schreiber’s character and the show itself can relax a bit and settle into the easier rhythm they find in the second episode, it’s very possible that the show can chart its own course through a sci-fi landscape littered with many the same discarded machine parts he once helped create.
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