A Halo movie’s been rumored for years now, with even Peter Jackson attached to direct, but has gotten no closer to being made — until now. Microsoft’s taking a big gamble with Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a 5-part live-action web series about a young group of UNSC cadets experiencing first contact with “an unknown alien race”. But as a marketing ploy, giving us a fresh shot of the Halo Universe every Friday until Halo 4′s release, it’s actually quite brilliant.
“Forward Until Dawn” Trailer
1. BARELY LEGAL
This is a cast of young unknowns. Their chubby cheeks and baby faces are incongruous to their battered UNSC armour, but it makes complete sense story-wise that we will be able to see the change that takes place in them during the course of the invasion. It’s a nice reminder that often the ones we send into war on our behalf to defend our freedoms are those barely old enough to enjoy them. Still, the series suffers from that typical Hollywood tendency to only populate its world with good-looking people. Everyone is cute. All big eyes and big lips. Thus, nagging at the back of your mind when you’re watching it is the suspicion that they aren’t real people, but rather pod-kids grown in a vat after neo-geneticists decided who was genetically superior enough to survive.
2. PRODUCTION VALUES
This movie is slick. Top notch art design, sets, acting, cinematography, special effects. As eye candy, it’s a great setup for the game, and argues convincingly for the return of live action full-motion video to come back to games. You can also tell that they got an actual screenwriter to plot out the script and dialogue, convincingly making our protagonist both sympathetic (he is the only one worried about a downed teammate early on) and courageous (he decides he is right and doesn’t obey a direct order). They also don’t make him too perfect, giving him shaky hands, an absent army colonel mother, and a distantly-stationed brother.
No doubt by the end of the series, he’ll have to find a way to steady those hands to make a crucial kill, and broker a peace with his mom. The brother, I fear, will be killed off, to give our hero added motivation.
3. COPY BATTLESTAR
The latest Battlestar Galactica TV series changed how we look at sci-fi. Gone was the traditional elegantly panning shots of the starship Enterprise, and in was the dirty, quick-cut, flash-zoom dogfights between the Cylons and the Raptors. Forward Unto Dawn takes a lot of inspiration from Battlestar. It’s filmed gritty, with some shots washed out, bleached and muted. Also it adopts the frantic drumbeats that were a Battlestar staple during action scenes. Everything looks real, from the weapons to the barracks. The first time you see a warthog driving down a dirt road you’ll want to cheer. The UNSC armour is battle-worn and pock-marked. The best way to take something so fantastic and cartoonish as Halo is to absolutely ground it in reality and they’ve done a stunning job of it here.
This first episode starts with a bang, but quickly slows down, letting us get to know the characters. It does what a lot of superhero movies do these days – spends half the movie getting to know the person behind the mask, and then we actually care when they finally put it on. For a web series about a videogame that’s virtually all-combat scenarios, they’ve made the smart move and not merely aped what was in the game. They’re showing us these kids relating to each other, their families, and their complicated relationship to their own roles as army cadets.
5. EPIC PROMISE
I’m fascinated by what Microsoft’s done here and I think it might change the way games are marketed from here on it if it proves successful. Instead of spending all their marketing money on splashy commercials, they are investing in a possible movie franchise, using this series as a test-bed. The final genius move will be the re-packaging of all the episodes into a movie in its own right that they can then include with their inevitable Halo 4 Game of the Year edition. It’s a smarter use of resources. It also offers the Halo franchise a chance to greatly humanize Master Chief, by offering us the opportunity to see him in a different context. We always knew he inspired the UNSC because every time we walked into a room, all the soldiers were astonished we were there – but it’s quite a different thing to step into the shoes of those soldiers, and grow with them as we watch the Chief’s effect.
FINAL VERDICT: I am elated and compelled by what Forward Unto Dawn has managed, and what it promises.
Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle Fictions, Pedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.