Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

After Neill Blomkamp’s motion picture adaptation of Halo was cancelled I feared we would never get to see the adventures of Master Chief on the big screen. Deemed too expensive to make during a period of diminishing box office returns, studios were fearful of the mammoth production regardless of the knowledge that its guaranteed fan base would turn out in droves to see it. Fans were pretty outraged when it was cancelled and rightfully so, especially after seeing how amazing the film Blomkamp made in that project’s wake, District 9, turned out.

So jump ahead a few years and the imminent release of the highly anticipated Halo 4 is upon Xbox 360 owners everywhere. The series’ original creators, Bungie, gave up the development duties on any installments after Halo: Reach, so Microsoft hired 343 Studios to take over. With a new studio at the reigns, many fans feared the worst. So how else could you get back in their good graces and build a massive amount of excitement for their game? You make a movie.
Basically Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn serves as a prequel to the entire series and is not in any way related to the storyline of Halo 4. It follows a group of young adult cadets at the Corbulo Academy of Military Science who are being trained for combat by the United Nations Space Command to stop a civilian insurgency. Cadet Thomas Lasky (Tom Green) is having trouble fitting in due to high expectations brought on by the memory of his military family’s pedigree, and only seems to get along with fellow cadet Chyler Silva (Anna Popplewell). As a romantic relationship begins to grow between them the Academy is attacked by an alien force and Lasky and his squad must fight for their lives to survive. Help arrives in the form of an armored super soldier known only as Master Chief (Daniel Cudmore).

The fact that this was made primarily as a commercial to advertise Halo 4 and was broken up into 5 parts and distributed online (one episode was released each week leading up to the release of the game on the website halowaypoint.com) doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a quality production. Made for only $10m, there is a polish to this project that some of the large budgeted Hollywood films can only dream about possessing. I credit director Stewart Hendler and writers Aaron & Todd Helbing for making something that is not only visually exciting and action-packed, but gives us a look at the beginnings of the Covenant War through the eyes of all-new characters that are interesting and relatable.
Every one of the young actors turns in a nice performance, especially Tom Green and Anna Popplewell. Popplewell, who most will recognize from The Chronicles of Narnia films, gives a very down-to-Earth feel to her character of Chyler that makes her immediately appealing. Tom Green, while starting off a little whiny and annoying, comes into his own after the first 20 minutes and becomes the emotional center that grounds the film. When the shit hits the fan at the 40 minute mark they also prove, along with their co-stars, that they are adept at handling action scenes as well.

The special effects have to be mentioned not because they are fantastic, but because this film rarely relies on CGI unless absolutely necessary. Sure during the invasion scene there are aliens running about and strafing runs by starships, but the script smartly stays focused on the main characters and rarely strays form them. Even when there are insane things going on around them the camera remains with them as they flee for their lives or prepare to mount an offensive. The film becomes intensely immersive due to this approach and I again have to give credit to the filmmakers for making yet another intelligent choice.
And then there’s the one person all Halo fans have been clamoring to see realized on film for a decade-- Master Chief. Daniel Cudmore (Colossus in the X-Men films) has the gargantuan task of playing this video game icon here, and even though we never see his face he gives Master Chief a lot of personality through his body language. Steve Downes provides the voice for the character as he has for every game, and it was awesome to hear him in a live-action Halo production.

While the story takes a while to get to the action scenes I will admit that it’s never boring. The characters are interesting and for a fan it was incredibly cool to finally get a bit of backstory on the beginnings of the war (especially for someone who never read any of the expansion novels). The action, however, is kick ass. We get to see Brutes annihilating waves of Cadets while tearing apart the Academy, a tense Warthog chase through a forest and to cap it all off we are treated to Master Chief taking on a Hunter with only a single grenade as a weapon. If you have been waiting to see a live action Master Chief whooping ass and taking names you are in for a treat.
I can imagine that my main beef is the same one all Halo fans share, and that would be that I wanted to see more of Master Chief. He shows up nearly an hour into the film and while he does a lot of cool stuff (seeing him run across that exterior walkway while dual-wielding put a smile on my face) I still wanted more than what we were given. He’s the focal point of the games and I can understand that leaving him out of the majority of the storyline was an intentional choice by the filmmakers to keep the budget low and give a nice build-up to his arrival later on, but the fact remains that every fan associates Halo with Master Chief. But I shouldn’t complain because I’m just happy that we even got a Halo film at all.

For a 90-minute webseries meant to serve as a glorified commercial, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn ended up being all I ever wanted in a live action Halo film and more. It has everything you could ever want: drama, action and well defined characters played by some talented young actors all wrapped up in a sweet Halo bow.
Now imagine this… if something this good was made for only $10m, what would a feature film made for $100m look like?

4 out of 5

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