Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn review

Does Microsoft's low budget, live action web series work as a standalone DVD release?

One of the biggest surprises - if not the only surprise - of Microsoft's Xbox One announcement was the revelation that Halo is being adapted into a TV show by none other than Steven Spielberg. As big name endorsements go, they don't come much bigger - even if any excitement must be tempered by the fact that Spielberg's sci-fi TV ventures tend to be a lot less illustrious than his movies. Falling Skies is a hit, but did anyone stick around to see how his critically panned Terra Nova series ended? And does anyone even remember his UFO saga, Taken?

Still, even the least games-savvy consumer recognises the Spielberg name, and that's what matters. The games industry, if you hadn't noticed, has a crippling inferiority complex when it comes to film and TV. Despite every video game adaptation being mostly terrible, there's still a deep-seated belief that rendering your characters in live action rather than rendering them with pixels lends them a validity that games can't manage on their own.

How else to explain Forward Unto Dawn, Halo's most recent live action incarnation, which started as a series of 15-minute "webisodes" and has now been compiled into an 80-minute movie for DVD and Blu-ray release. Does it give us a tantalising taster of what a full Halo TV show might offer, or does it better serve as yet another warning of what happens when game and film mix?

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Forward Unto Dawn won four major awards, including Best Drama, at the 2013 Streamy Awards for digital series.

At a budget of $10 million, this is one of the most expensive web series ever made, and it's certainly the most that Microsoft has spent on a live action promo. Trouble is, in live action, 10 million doesn't buy all that much, and Forward Unto Dawn can't help but be diminished by its frugal nature. Unless Spielberg is budgeting in the millions for each episode of his show, it's probably best not to anticipate too many epic land battles on soaring space rings.

But Halo is held back from live action success by more than just budget. Master Chief himself is a massive obstacle. A character designed mostly to look awesome in cut-scenes and on box fronts rather than to offer rich potential for drama, he's an empty shell. That's actually perfect for a game, leaving ample space for the player to step into his boots, but it's a real problem for a passive medium like film where characters must earn our attention.

Forward Unto Dawn deals with this by relegating Master Chief to cameo status. Following a title credits sequence that echoes the opening of Halo 4, with Cortana and Chief drifting in the ship of the title, we're abruptly pulled into the flashback of Thomas Lansky, familiar to gamers as one of the stars of the Spartan Ops mode in Halo 4. The adult Lansky's stoic reminiscence takes us back to the UNSC Corbulo Academy on the planet Cirnicus-IV, where young recruits are trained to fight insurrectionists across the Earth colonies, before the Covenant attacks humanity.

So we watch as the young and reedy Lansky (Australian actor Tom Green) butts heads with his classmates and instructors. He's a hothead, you see, living in the shadow of his war hero mother and his older brother, who serves with the ODST special forces. Petulant and frustrated, he's a cliché familiar from a dozen military coming-of-age stories, not least Top Gun. Neither the script, from Spartacus writers the Helbing brothers, nor Green himself gets much of a chance to develop Lansky. He's cinematic shorthand, and his journey from disobedient brat to battle-hardened soldier feels rote and predictable.

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Director Stewart Hendler previously helmed the DTV horror flicks Whisper and Sorority Row, and also directed all 51 episodes of Bryan Singer's web series, H+.

Simply getting to that pay-off is a slog, thanks to an uneven structure based around 15-minute episodes and a story that was clearly dictated by what special effects could be afforded. So we get a good 40 minutes of drab academy soap opera - basically a PG-rated, unironic riff on Starship Troopers, with none of the venomous satire - before anything of note happens. Lansky's classmates fail to make much of an impression, and only tentative love interest Silva (plummy Anna Popplewell of the Narnia movies) stands out. If you always felt that what Halo was missing was a gooey teenage romance, this is the film for you.

The story finally picks up the pace when, out of nowhere, the Covenant appear and attack the academy. We get some fleeting glimpses of various CGI aliens, but it's clear from the convenient night-time setting and surplus of smoke and dust that the models used wouldn't stand up to detailed scrutiny.

Just when it seems all hope is lost, who should turn up but a certain Spartan, diverting from his mission to rescue the terrorised kids. "Call me...Master Chief!" he intones as they follow him, wide-eyed, down grey corridors, but something doesn't sit right. Master Chief is played by Daniel Cudmore - probably best known as Colossus from the X-Men movies - and his 6'8" frame fills the armour impressively and makes him tower over the cadets. However, he's voiced not by Steve Downes, who has played Master Chief in every game, but by some guy called Alex Puccinelli, whose only credits seem to be working as a production assistant on Eastbound & Down and Christmas with Walt Disney. There's just no gravitas or weight behind Puccinelli's lighter, less throaty take on Chief, and this switch makes Forward Unto Dawn feel even more like an unofficial fan film.

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Fans of industry cameos should watch out for Halo brand manager Frank O'Connor as an academy janitor.

It's fans who will most enjoy this section though, as it crams in as many nods to the games as the budget will allow. There's a brief bit with some indistinct enemies on a distant rooftop and - look! - they're shooting Needlers! Are they Grunts or Elites? You can't really tell. Meanwhile, Master Chief does a lot of running and shooting and jumping in slow motion as dirt explodes all around him. Then there's a short and gloomy chase in a Warthog through a forest just dark enough that you catch glimpses of Jackals hiding behind their glowing shields, and if you're quick with the pause button you can even see their faces when Master Chief blows them away with the Warthog's turret. Ooh, was that a plasma grenade? It was! You know these things! Here they are in live action! Halo movie!

OK, I'm being facetious, and I won't deny there's a flicker of excitement when the turgid first half gives way to this hurried conveyor belt of All The Stuff You've Been Waiting For - but this really is the worst kind of fan service, driven by Pavlovian recognition of visual cues. There's little rhythm or flow to the action and no sense of the stakes or the geography that the characters must traverse. Yes, it's all done with a lot more gumption and polish than a YouTube cosplay fan video, but it's ultimately no more meaningful.

Perhaps most bizarrely, Forward Unto Dawn fails spectacularly at its intended goal of reaching out to people who have yet to experience Halo in game form. For all the elements from the games thrown at the screen, none of them are explained. The Covenant is never properly introduced or explored - to the uninitiated, aliens just suddenly drop from the sky and start killing everyone, and by the end credits you'll be none the wiser as to who they are or why they did it. Master Chief is similarly sketched - only those familiar with the games will understand why his appearance at the Academy is a big deal.

"It feels like one of those third-tier superhero TV movies from the 1990s, where characters could only afford to use their powers a few times and every city looked like a Toronto parking lot."

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At one point, the cadets undertake a “capture the flag” training exercise. OMG! Just like the game!

Such iconic elements of the games will only resonate for fans, yet those fans are likely to be disappointed by the reduced scale of this project, which adds nothing to our understanding of the Halo universe. It feels like one of those third-tier superhero TV movies from the 1990s, where characters could only afford to use their powers a few times and every city looked like a Toronto parking lot.

Forward Unto Dawn was clearly made with the best intentions, but between a thin script and the financial inability to replicate the sort of action that made the games so successful, it was always going to be a compromised effort. Yet such is the allure of the live action movie - even a low budget effort such as this - that Microsoft pressed ahead with it anyway.

Think of Halo and you likely think of epic alien vistas, gangs of weird, colourful aliens dashing about, and sleek vehicles hammering each other in pitched battles. Forward Unto Dawn contains none of that. It's surprising the famously protective Microsoft signed off on it, let alone produced it. If the only way to render your blockbuster saga in another medium is to make it look this small and cheap, was it really worth the effort?

Fingers crossed that Spielberg has the credibility - and funds - to crack this nut. But maybe it's time that the industry, and us gamers, accept that our best franchises work just fine as games and don't always need the dubious mainstream validation that a live action adaptation provides.

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 27th May in the UK.

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