I had thought I would like to write reviews that nobody would read, but motivation has been scarce of late. But I knew it would only take one thing I had a mildly passionate interest in to spark me off.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn
Microsoft and Machinima Prime’s 5-part Halo web series has been getting a lot of time among my friends lately. I had downloaded the first episode when it came out, but after the recent management of the Halo franchise and the retconned story canon I was wary of investing any further of my time. I had spent a lot of time playing Halo, reading Halo, discussing Halo, and the retconning (and the Forerunner novel series…ugh) had seriously put a bad taste in my mouth.
For me, Halo was an odd thing. From the outside (back before I owned an Xbox) it was a boring looking First Person Shooter – bland environments, cliched alien designs and a weird weapon system (I can’t carry 137 guns like in Goldeneye? No thank you!) I was a Nintendo guy at heart and Halo simply didn’t appeal to me.
However, a friend of mine insisted I give them a go, and eventually I succumbed. We did a marathon (pun intended) play through of Halo 1 and 2. I was hooked. They were tight and almost meticulously paced, and had a wonderful sense of when to be laid back and when to turn the intensity up (and Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s soundtrack was simply spectacular). Eventually a friend lent me the novels and I was introduced to a space opera which placed an emphasis on details I found compelling, such as morale and the emotional impact of the war, the way people perceived the SPARTAN-IIs (which was mostly negative) and the utter devastation humans suffered at the hands of a vastly superior enemy. The books made the aliens seem less silly and the war much more human, and I was legitimately impressed with the breadth of the story that Bungie had written for Halo.
Forward Unto Dawn
The way I see the Halo canon today is that Bungie handed over the ropes after ODST. (Anecdotally) Halo: Reach was not the story they wanted to tell, and I felt the game absolutely smacked of that. So that puts Forward Unto Dawn firmly into the post-Bungie Halo canon (after the retconning began).
Because the Peter Jackson-produced Halo film never eventuated, there isn’t really much to compare Forward Unto Dawn to except for TV ads and a short film made by Neill Blomkamp, the director hired by Peter Jackson to make Halo. Were it the case that, like many video games, the supporting content was weak, Forward Unto Dawn would have been a spectacular example of video game advertising done right. Whilst much of the earlier Halo advertising was weak, there were some absolutely class act moments which served to put Forward Unto Dawn onto the back foot right from the start. I’ll highlight three of these before launching into my opinions of Forward Unto Dawn.
First is the absolutely amazing Believe ad. In my opinion, this is among the best ads of all time and is made all the more powerful by the strong emotional response it evokes. The core message is pushing the hopelessness of the war (which the novels do very well, but is barely hinted at in the games). If there was an ad to make people who never played Halo give it a second look, this was it. There were supporting ads showing war veterans in a museum of the Human-Covenant conflict and on battlefields, but these felt lazy and distinctly B-grade (a feeling which is echoed in all of the Halo: Reach ads).
Secondly, the almost equally spectacular We Are ODST ad. Again, it does little to glamourise war and it feels very human. Real soldiers were used to play the parts which helped to lend an extremely authentic feel to the commercial. Much like Believe, this ad was probably better than the game itself.
Finally is the Blomkamp short I mentioned above; Landfall. Landfall runs a mere 6 minutes, and the entire plot of which revolves around making a telemetry scan of an object falling from orbit. This feels like a war film though, in the vein of something like Black Hawk Down. There is immediate emotional attachment. The enemies are alien and so you can immediately empathise with the faceless human ODSTs. What follows is a brutal examination of conflict as the men and women are gunned down mercilessly and easily. Wounded soldiers struggle to complete their mission against oppressive and relentless enemies, and the emotional feeling of the piece is well executed and powerful. The worst part of this short film is that it demonstrates exactly what we missed when the Halo film fell through.
Backward Unto Dawn?
Machinima Prime present the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn web series on YouTube, and I hear Microsoft fronted $10 million for the production. Whilst this may seem expensive, Forward Unto Dawn runs almost 90 minutes which puts it into feature film territory, where a $10m budget is a drop in the ocean. Knowing that this was a low budget piece, I set my expectations accordingly.
But boy did it feel like a low budget film. Possibly the worst part was costuming, which in pretty typical B-film style had everyone dressed as if they had put on a new suit moments before the cameras rolled. There’s nary a spot or a blemish – on anyone – and it made it hard to believe that the UNSC cadets had been drilling mission simulations repeatedly. This is a small point, but one I feel is relevant because it felt jarring to watch. However, it’s not enough to write off a film, and because of the relatively small budget it would be unreasonable to expect a costume department that matched a $250 million dollar film.
The costuming was definitely the least of the production’s worries, however, and it becomes apparent extremely quickly that the script is the Achilles heel of the series. Aaron and Todd Helbing’s screenplay is plodding and uncomfortable. All character interactions feel extremely awkward and forced, and the actors look downright uncomfortable most of the time. There is very lazy foreshadowing and backstory to the dramas with the Insurrectionists (terrorists who the UNSC was fighting before they encountered the Covenant) feels so forced it is like pushing and entire ham leg through the neck of a Coke bottle.
One particularly low moment features the characters watching a ‘classified’ video of UNSC marines fighting Insurrectionists and shows a glimpse of a SPARTAN-II. The exclamations from the cadets upon seeing the SPARTAN-II were simply painful (there is a “what the hell is that thing?” delivered with so little conviction I had to pause the viewing just to recover so I didn’t miss anything that followed). For anyone unfamiliar with Halo, the major question here was “what’s the big deal?” as the SPARTAN-II visible in the video simply looks like a slightly more armoured ODST and was clearly a man in armour. Yet another entire section that felt forced, as if trying to project a sense of amazement to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise understand.
Things get worse once the Covenant arrive randomly at the UNSC academy. There is an entire sequence that revolves around a Sangeheili (Elite) alien with active camouflage (he’s invisible). In all Halo canon, including the games, the Elites are shown as ferocious and extremely intelligent aliens who have a strong focus on military and are extremely technologically advanced. They are uncompromising; they believe retreat is a worse failure than death, they do not take prisoners and they do not take their time to dispatch enemy soldiers.
In Forward Unto Dawn, however, the Sangheili becomes a ‘movie monster’. Slow and seemingly unaware of his surroundings, he spends a lot of time standing around doing nothing. The cadets first see him in a hall, and then have an extremely long conversation on what to do, before finally running down the hall. One cadet is killed, and they all hide in a store room. Again, we have the privilege of seeing the actors go through a long and very slowly paced dialogue while they try and access weapons. Eventually (after standing around outside having a think, presumably) the Elite comes and bashes down the door and everyone hides…and then he stands stationary in the middle of the room making monster noises and generally doing little to indicate that he is even hostile. The audience get to sit through another protracted dialogue, this time all whispered. Ugh.
Finally, the Sangheili finds them but while doing what I can only assume was the classic monster ‘reach out and grab the hero’ he is killed and we enter Master Chief.
The appearance of Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra 117 is probably the highlight of the series, and everything that follows is generally better – mostly because people start shooting at things and stop talking so much. There is some decent action that follows, but the biggest let down is still the awkward dialogues in which everyone stops dead. Most painful, perhaps, is the portrayal of Master Chief, especially after the extremely vivid descriptions in the canon (and again this is a problem with scripting and the direction). The Master Chief spends a lot of time standing idly or looking around. Whenever he takes command, you don’t get a sense that he’s a super soldier; just a regular massive guy in an armoured suit.
Toward the end there is a section where one of the cadets tells the group that he’ll be a distraction so Master Chief can defeat the Lekgolo (Hunter) that is pursuing them. As the cadet runs off into the forest (and survives multiple fuel rod explosions) Master Chief simply stands there staring at him, one can only imagine it is with jaw agape.
Forward Unto T for Teen
Ultimately Forward Unto Dawn felt like exactly what Microsoft marketing and 343 Studios want it to be – a Teen Sci-Fi that lays all its cards on the table and doesn’t overtax your mind with unexplained things or complex timelines. Perhaps most disappointingly, it was clearly aimed at an audience who already play Halo and just want to see Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra 117 on the silver screen (or whatever simile exists for YouTube).
The main issue is pace pace pace. Between the ugly writing and the uninspired direction, the series slowly ambles toward the only thing people are even watching it for – a glimpse of a SPARTAN-II. I found that you could skip ahead from Episode 1 to Episode 4 and not feel like any plot had been missed at all (I skipped these two episodes entirely on my first viewing). That means there is at least 35 minutes of junk content. With some much tighter editing of the drawn out dialogue sequences after the action starts, this could be quite decent overall.
I think the real miss here is that the focus was clearly on the length of the piece rather than making a really good film. Four five minute episodes which made up an extremely tight 20 minute film would have been much preferred to the 87 minute hulking monster we got. If the DVD release puts the episodes together into one ‘logical’ film I feel that more people may notice the pace issues more than when watching a weekly 17 minute episode. Drawing back to my comparisons with advertising from earlier Halo games, it also seemed like the series gave the perception of plot where there was none. There didn’t seem to be any issues that were resolved by the end, and the first three episodes were just lazy character studies to amble the series through to the action.
‘Dumb’ action isn’t necessarily a bad thing when done well, and long character development can be extremely watchable also. But Forward Unto Dawn doesn’t do either of these things particularly well. It makes amateur attempts at evoking emotion from the audience, only to be soundly stomped by the much more moving TV commercials for Halo 3 and ODST (I cannot emphasise enough that they are ads!) Whilst Forward Unto Dawn was produced competently – I certainly can’t complain about the sound or visual quality – it would have benefitted from the time of a great screenwriter to really clean the script up. If that had’ve cost Microsoft another $5 million, it would have been money well spent. As it stands, I can’t really recommend Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn to anyone, not Halo fans, and especially not people unfamiliar with Halo.
I give it a 4 out of 10 for effort. If this wasn’t a YouTube B-Film and I had to seriously grade it against other films I’d give it a 2. Better has been done with less, and the ready-made universe should have made this easier and better.