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SXSW Review Paramount +’s Halo- Millions Of Dollars Look Well Spent

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least watched a game or two of the iconic series. When you think of sci-fi first-person shooters, Halo is the one that most comes to mind. Master Chief is our game hero because we get to be him. We get to step into his oversized boots and defend the universe from those evil buggers. Paramount +’s Halo, which has been in the works for two decades, aired its first two episodes as part of SXSW, and I am cautiously optimistic the wait was worth it.

Courtesy of Paramount +

It’s hard to judge anything based solely on two episodes, regardless of how good or bad those episodes are. Rest assured, they were good, not great, but they had more than enough to make me want more. In a story as expansive and well known as Halo, there are bound to be some growing pains in the early episodes. There is an insane amount of world-building required, not to mention that there is a literal face to go with the name of the titular stoic Master Chief.

Created by Stephen Kane and Kyle Killen and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, it had the pedigree, not to mention the potential plots with legions of games, books, anime, novels, and web series. There were almost unlimited angles to explore. So when Pablo Schreiber was tapped to play Master Chief, the pieces started falling into place. He is a true chameleon, having played the over-the-top leprechaun in American Gods and a nearly unrecognizable Allan Gore in Hulu’s recent docudrama Candy. He encompasses all the best parts of a character that until now was fully covered and largely unknown. The game wanted it that way. We needed to step into the shoes of a living god. The SPARTANS are Titans designed to defend without emotion or question.

Pablo Schreiber is tremendous. His voice acting work alone in the first episode is a highlight. His signature gravelly voice conveys a great deal that helps the shift from a mindless weapon to a protective and flustered man. He is everything I wanted from Master Chief. He’s strong and solid and sexy as hell, but part of the game’s magic was getting to do the shooting ourselves. I’m not entirely sure if the story can live up, but the pieces are there.

Perfectly cast, Yerin Ha(Kwan) lives on the desert planet of Madrigal, where the people mine and swap stories about the evils of the SPARTANS. She is tough and idealistic, having grown up a rebel. While out exploring, the Covenant lands on her world, and before she can warn anyone, the aliens begin unloading on the planet. The Covenant is there because they have detected a magical rock of sorts with the power to destroy any and all opponents. When the SPARTANS arrive, total bedlam ensues, leaving Kwan in grave danger.

The first episode is full of fan service. It feels and looks like the game with plenty of helmet cam shots and massive battle scenes. We even are gifted that awesome armor-charging sound that every gamer loved to hear. Blood spurts, heads explode, and bodies fly. It’s spectacular, and director Otto Bathhurst captures all of this insanity in heart-pounding glory.

A shift between episodes one and two clearly defines the path away from strict video game canon to a stand-alone story. While the first episode delivers spectacular set-pieces, the second establishes the rules. Rebels good. Covenant bad. The UNSC is also not great. In Schreiber’s hands, John, aka Master Chief, begins his journey to something other than a killing machine. His exposure to the artifact changed him, even if he doesn’t know how or why yet. Die-hard fans may have a problem with this choice as they prefer him to be a faceless voice directing traffic. To create a series with multiple seasons, storylines, and character arcs, he must be more than a paper doll with a commanding voice.

We are also introduced to Dr. Halsey played coldly terrifying by Natascha McElhone who has her own agenda as she deftly navigates between appeasing her UNSC masters who fund her and fighting for her creations, John and Cortana. The second episode of Halo slows way down from the action-packed first and develops the conflicts that will play out in the remainder of the season. These two feel very disparate, and I am curious which model the remainder of the season takes. Characters are introduced quickly and casual fans may have a hard time keeping up but the time put into fleshing out John and Kwan’s journey to find Soren-066(Bokeem Woodbine) seems to pay off.

The massive budget looks well spent even if the aliens look a tad too mustache-twirling ET to be the horrifying monsters they are in the game. Largely the effects are incredible, and the costume design is striking. Halo has already been renewed for Season 2, so clearly, someone at Paramount thinks it is worth it. Only time will tell but the talent and the effects alone should be enough to warrant a view. Paramount + needs a tent pole series, and Halo looks poised to be it. It premiers on March 24th, 2022. Find all our SXSW coverage here.