I don’t have to tell gamers that “Halo 4: Forward unto Dawn” is based on the “Halo” video game series that began in November 2001—a series so popular that it helped establish and solidify Xbox’s position in the game console marketplace. But I do need to confess that I’m reviewing this film as a non-gamer watching it with his teenage son, who happens to be a big fan of the Halo games.
My son was bursting with anticipation as he tore open the package, sure that there would be some game points or at least teasers for new game products, but there was NOTHING. Equally surprising is that the word Xbox or any of the Halo game names appear nowhere on the box copy, except for a very fine-print URL. So it’s clear that Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries didn’t spend $10 million to create this web series, which ran on Machinima Prime in October-November of 2012, only to have it thought of as being for gamers only. They’re obviously looking to expand the viewership, so I feel perfectly justified in approaching it as a film critic.
But first, let me tell you my son’s opinion: He thought that the beginning was excessively long and slow-moving, that some of the alien close-ups were stunning and worth the wait, that the sometimes invisible Elite invaders were amazing, that the genetically enhanced übersoldier Master Chief was fun to watch (especially as he jumped on an alien Hunter like a cowboy on a Brahma bull and planted a grenade that did the trick), but that the film ended in a “stupid place.” He walked away from it ultimately disappointed and awarded it “two stars out of four.”
For me, watching the first 40 minutes of “Halo 4: Forward unto Dawn” was as tough as slogging through an instruction manual. Never mind that the backstories for the characters seemed tacked-on. I didn’t find the characters all that interesting in the early going and didn’t care about them, because, while the CGI work was top-notch, the actors were nondescript and the lines they mouthed seemed as routine as pulling the trigger in a shooter game. There were a lot of soap-opera stand-and-deliver monologues and Joey Tribiani “smell the fart” acting moments. The special effects, aliens, and set design only made the acting and writing look even wimpier by comparison.
However, once the alien Covenant descends and the plot accelerates, two characters actually move beyond the clichés and pick up a personality along the way: reluctant cadet Tom Lasky (Tom Green) and cadet Chyler Silva (Anna Popplewell, from the “Narnia” series).
Collectively, these futuristic soldiers take as their inspiration a Roman general who was married to the insane emperor Caligula’s sister, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, whose last words, once Caligula was dead and Nero was in command and ordered him to commit suicide, were “Axios”—meaning, “I am worthy.” And so every last cadet salutes and says “Axios” whenever he or she is given an order.
The year is 2525, and the setting is a colony somewhere in deep space. Cadets are being trained to fight in a counter-insurgency campaign, and Lasky is shown watching video letters from his brother, who’s on the line fighting as a shock trooper. After training, training, and more training with fake ammunition, the cadets remain totally unprepared for the invasion that surprises everyone, and they don’t even have access to weapons and live ammunition. While these aired as webisodes, they're tightly edited to create a fluid near 90-minute feature. But there’s not much plot to divulge, really. The first half is spent with the cadets training, and the second half with them fighting or evading aliens, with plenty of video game POV shots through scopes and such.
I know that Microsoft and Friends were wanting to expand the audience for the “Halo” series, but those who find shooting and moving and shooting some more, then dodging an alien and shooting some more will already be hooked on the film version of “Halo.” And for those who don’t spend their time playing “shooter” games? My guess is that they’ll find this one lacking because of first-half inaction and only adequate acting, and just as boring because of second-half action that, but for a few fun moments, can start to feel repetitive. Which is to say, the POV filming and style of cinematography seem very faithful to the game, rather than straying too far into movie territory.
“Halo 4” has a slick look to it, with minimal grain and gobs of detail that show not just in close-ups but backgrounds as well. The CGI work is enhanced by high definition, not exposed by it, and apart from an increased graininess during hand-held camera quick pans and tilts and aside from several instances of banding that I noticed, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appears to be solid. No other artifacts detected. “Halo 4” is presented in a letterboxed widescreen that appears to be 2.40:1.
Despite being webisodes strung together, “Halo 4” offers a soundtrack worthy of any big-screen action flick. It’s surprisingly immersive, with directional sound and heavy rear-speaker involvement. If I have a complaint, it’s that if you set the volume so you can hear the dialogue comfortably, the effects and dramatic music are way too loud, almost obnoxiously so. The solution is an annoying one: keep toggling up and down on the volume control. Otherwise, it’s a superb English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio that drives the sound, with subtitles in English SDH (which is another solution to the annoying noise problem).
Another surprise are the bonus features. If you’re a fan of commentaries, you get three of them here, probably because so many parties were involved and wanted to take part. In addition to a commentary track with director Stewart Hendler and another one featuring producer Josh Feldman and writers Aaron and Todd Helbing, 343 Industries franchise director Frank O’Connor and his managing editor, Kevin Grace, offer another take on the film and how it came to be, what it tries to accomplish.
Personally, I’d rather watch a 58-minute making-of documentary than re-watch the film again three times. And this nine-part extra (“Bringing Halo into Reality,” “Awakening a Sleeper: The Making of Forward unto Dawn,” “The Perfect Spartan,” “Rendering the Real: The Design,” “One Epic Tour: The Stunts,” “Outfitting the War: The Costumes,” “A Drive with Warthog Pete,” “Built for Battle,” “The Final Arc,” and “Tether to Digital Space”) is above average as movie features go, and exceptional for a Web project.
Rounding out the bonus features are pre-release storyline vignettes (22 min.); Nathan Lanier’s isolated score; a “Red vs. Blue PSR: Sleeper” inside joke (3 min.); a huge collection of photos, concept art, storyboard art, model mock-ups, etc.; trailers; and recruitment video for the Corbulo Academy of Military Sciences. There are also Easter Eggs announced, but after watching all of this stuff I didn’t care to look for them, to be honest.
“Halo 4: Forward unto Dawn” may have had a goal of broadening the audience beyond gamers, but the film is so close to watching a video game for the second action-filled half and the set-up so pedestrian that I don’t see non-gamers becoming fans. The action is exciting, but the film's other flaws drag it down.