I've written about Halo before, and I wrote there that I wasn't sure if I'd review Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn or not, but now I feel that the world deserves to know about this study in contradictions. Is it cleverly and professionally produced online series, or low budget sci-fi flick? Is it a definitive story of the origin of the Human-Covenant War, or a spanner in the works of an otherwise airtight continuity? Let's find out.
Originally released online in serialized form, but now combined into a ninety minute movie, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn tells the story of the cadets at the Corbulo Academy of Military Science. The principal character is Cadet Thomas Lasky (Tom Green), who doesn't really want to fight. His friend Chyler Silva (Anna Popplewell), on the other hand, is apparently very much for fighting the "innies," that is, insurrectionists. The other cadets have their own stories, but most of the focus is on Tom and Chyler, with a little time spent on the others. But just as Tom is beginning to step up as a leader, who should show up at CAMS but the Covenant. They proceed to blow up the school, until only Tom and a small group of other Cadets are still alive against a force of Covenant troops. But they're not alone. Master Chief shows up! Yeah! Will Chief and Tom and company get out safely, or will everybody get killed to death? If you've played the Halo games, you probably know that it's a combination of both.
I call this series/movie a study in contradictions because I got a very different reaction watching it in serialized form online than I got from watching it as a movie. In serialized form, there was suspense and cliff hangers every week, and our investment in the characters was built up as time went on. I'm no film major, but I know that serialized shows and full length films are built very differently, and the movie version suffers for it. Granted, the movie version has extra scenes of the cadets introducing themselves at the beginning which gives them a little more depth, but that's about it. Also, all of the mini-cutscenes with Cortana and Master Chief were shunted to the front of the film or to the back. Of course, this film was made in order to promote Halo 4, so that may be a sign of it's quality.
To get to the point, Forward Unto Dawn simply doesn't work as a film, both for the reasons previously stated and for other structural flaws in the story and characters. But there are some good things about it. The acting is really strong, particularly on Tom Green's part, and the action scenes are really cool. The characters are also all likeable, even if not all of them get a lot of character development. We at least get some motivation for most of them, and we've got some good supporting characters in the form of Colonel Mehaffey (Ayelet Zurer, who played Jor-El's wife Lara in Man of Steel) General Black (Michael Dopud), and, of course, Master Chief (Daniel Cudmore). In hindsight, I'm kind of confused on why they had a different actor provide Master Chief's voice. I was thinking they could have gone with the Darth Vader approach and put some big guy in the suit while having Steve Downes, his voice actor from the games, do the voice. That said, Cudmore is still pretty good as Master Chief. I'd also like to offer high praise to the emotional depth that this series manages to pull off. Despite its flaws, that's the one thing it has in common with the games.
But remember those structural flaws in the story and characters that I mentioned? Yeah, we're going to have to talk about that now. Let's start with Chyler Silva. Despite being played by great actress Anna Popplewell, who I loved as Susan Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia movies, she's kind of a flat character. We're told through expository dialogue what her motivation is, as opposed to, say, an emotional reveal. I think the creators were trying to play up the contrast between the Lasky's wild card nature to her straight laced demeanor, but it only partially succeeds. The end result is a completely implausible romance. What do these two have in common that makes them bond? We are never told.
And then there's the other cadets. Sure, we're given some background on a few of them, but the potentially interesting ones, like J.J. and Vickers, are only given so much time to shine. I don't want to spoil anything, but even those that make it to the end of the movie aren't given much background and character. April (Enisha Brewster), the commanding cadet officer, in particular, is really underused. She's easily the coolest of the bunch, but she gets the least character development, though she still has some great scenes.
There's also the issues this story raises for just how the Human-Covenant War got started. I haven't read the Halo books, but from what I understand, the war began when the Covenant invaded the planet Harvest about a year before Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. I think it's implied in here that the whole alien invasion thing was being kept secret from the rest of humanity, but I find that a pretty hard bite to swallow. I also read somewhere that it was stated in one of the books that humanity didn't run into Elites and Hunters until sometime later in the war, yet there a Elites and Hunters in this movie. If there are any Halo book readers in the audience, I would like to be enlightened.
On the whole, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn isn't the best thing I've ever seen, having serious flaws. I want to like it, and again, I loved it serialized form, but as I said before, it just doesn't work as a movie. What's good about it though is that it's still available online, free to watch, albeit without the extra footage at the beginning. For this reason, if you're a die hard Halo fan, then you might want to pick it up on DVD, or at least watch it on Netflix. Otherwise, though, just go see it online. You'll have a lot more fun watching it that way; I certainly did. Mind you, however, this is a movie based on a first person shooter, so there's some gore, but not a lot, mixed in with a one or two cases of severe swearing. I'm actually surprised at how tame it was compared to the actual Halo games, which by themselves are pretty tame for a first person shooter.
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