Judge Erich Asperschlager is the last of the genetically enhanced super-reviewers.
The story of Halo 4 begins at dawn.
Video games and movies have had a rocky relationship. Early attempts to cash in on the button mashing craze may have suckered in kids like me, but they haven't aged well. The big obstacle for early gaming flicks like Super Mario Bros. was that games back then were simple. It wasn't until much later that video game stories became important. Developers have spent the last two console cycles adding narratives to the jumping and shooting. Game fans might tell you that modern video game stories are just as meaty and exciting as movies. They are wrong. Although game stories are much better than they were, the limitations of the medium have mostly stymied attempts to tell truly great stories.
Movies and books have the luxury of presenting their stories as their creators intended. An author doesn't have to worry about their reader abandoning an important character conversation to search a side corridor for health packs. A filmmaker knows exactly how long the climactic battle scene will last, and knows the film won't be rewound halfway through the sequence because the viewer failed a checkpoint.
On the other hand, video games can do thing that movies and books can't. They give the player control of the story, making them feel like they are part of the action and not just watching it from the outside. Some games tell stories by limiting player choice to create a series of interactive set-pieces. Some litter the landscape with hidden notebooks and information terminals for player to find. Others have the benefit of history, with each game building on a core mythology that exists within the games as well as extended fiction in other media. No gaming franchise has done that world-building better than Halo.
Launching with the original Xbox in 2001, the Halo series has spawned games, books, comics, and films. It tells the sprawling tale of humanity's fight to defeat fanatical aliens searching for ancient technology designed to destroy all life. Over the years, the narrative has expanded to include sub-factions, rivalries, alliances, and the twisted origins of the UNSC's Spartan super-soldier program. At the heart of it all, though, is Spartan supreme Master Chief—an enigmatic hero famous in part for never removing his helmet.
The newest game in the series, Halo 4 released in November 2012 to positive reviews and huge sales, more than enough to offset the obscene amounts of money Microsoft poured into its development, advertising, and snack food cross-promotion. One of the most successful pieces of Halo 4's pre-release blitz was the five-part web series, Forward Unto Dawn. Where most web series are shot on the cheap and presented as disposable viral marketing, Forward Unto Dawn impressed fans with high production values and an involved story set in the Halo universe. The feature-length series was included in the Halo 4 Limited Edition as streaming video through the official site. It is now available to everyone in an impressive home video package with the release of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
When we left Master Chief at the end of Halo 3 he was in cryo-sleep, adrift in a bisected spaceship heading towards a mysterious planet. Forward Unto Dawn doesn't explain what happens next—for that, you'll have to play Halo 4. Instead, it uses that set-up to bookend a flashback to the beginning of the war against the Covenant. The film follows a group of UNSC recruits at the Corbulo Academy of Military Science, but is primarily the story of rebellious cadet Thomas Lasky (Tom Green, Dance Academy). Despite being the son of a prominent military leader, Lasky isn't sure he has the stomach for battle. He disobeys orders during training exercises, argues with superiors, and debates the morality of war with his only real friend, fellow freshman Chyler Silva (Anna Popplewell, The Chronicles of Narnia). Things changes hewn another recruit finds footage of a mysterious armor-clad figure buried in the school's records, suggesting there's more to the fight than they have been told.
Compared to the average blockbuster movie, Forward Unto Dawn moves slowly, tells a simple story, and is stingy on action. That's because it's not a feature film. It's a big budget web video. Microsoft might have dumped a ton of money into their latest Halo game, but that doesn't mean Forward Unto Dawn had unlimited resources. It is evident throughout the film that director Stewart Hendler and his creative team had to do a lot with a little. The film employs lots of visual tricks to hide the budgetary limitations. The shortcuts are smart, if a bit frustrating. A lot of the first hour is shaky cam close-ups of people talking in small rooms and reused corridors, with strategic use of the world's only working Warthog.
Forward Unto Dawn saves up the action for the last 20 minutes or so—a thrilling climax filled with explosions, gunfire, and alien invaders. Granted, part of that climax involves a fight against an invisible enemy, but that kind of creative thinking exemplifies the film's effective efficiency. Although it takes a long time to get going, once things go nuts Forward Unto Dawn holds its own as a legitimate action flick. It's bound to be nonsense for anyone not familiar with Halo staples like ODSTs and Covenant Elites, but there's nothing here beyond the grasp of the casual Halo bro. The movie gets the Halo details right, bringing to life iconic in-game weapons like the assault rifle and even incorporating the game's Heads Up Display. Some of it feels like pandering to fans, but that's who this movie was made for.
If it seems strange to get this far into a Halo review without talking about Master Chief, that's because he's absent for most the movie. Don't be fooled by the giant Chief hogging the cover art. He doesn't make a real appearance until two-thirds through the story. When he does show up, though, it's pretty awesome. Master Chief is an unusual action hero. Although he speaks in the games, he's mostly a generic surrogate for the player. Halo 4 works hard to humanize him, but it's a delicate balance. It's even trickier on film. Divorced from the games' first person perspective, the Chief is a tough sell. Even the emotional inflection in Alex Puccinelli's vocal performance (the person in the suit is stuntman-actor Daniel Cudmore) sounds somehow wrong. Fans have long clamored for Hollywood to make a Halo movie, but I'm not convinced Master Chief as he appears in the games would be a memorable main character. He works in Forward Unto Dawn because co-writers Todd and Aaron Helbing treat him more as a Deus ex Machina than leading man.
When it originally hit the web, Forward Unto Dawn was presented in five 15-minute parts. This extended edition adds new material that brings the runtime to a full 90 minutes, although that includes a new prologue that introduces the recruits (and breaks the flow of the film), and a lengthy post-credits gag reel.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn on Blu-ray takes the HD presentation that have been available online to the next level. The 2.35:1 1080p digital image is gorgeous. The sharp details might seem wasted on the desaturated talking sequences, but they really pop during the opening animated sequence featuring Cortana and a sleeping Chief, and throughout the climactic final battle. Whether in the light of day, in gloomy corridors, or in nighttime firefights, this is a near-flawless transfer. The big draw for those making the leap from streaming is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. This active mix fills the soundscape with whizzing projectiles and Nathan Lanier's atmospheric score.
The biggest reason to upgrade to a physical copy of the film are all the bonus features, presented in HD—many with surround sound. There's a lot of great stuff for fans to dig into:
• Audio Commentaries: There are three commentaries—with the director; with 343 Industries' Halo gurus Frank O'Connor and Kevin Grace; and with producer Josh Feldman and the screenwriters. I'm not sure the film justifies three full commentaries, but even with a good deal of overlap, the participants provide plenty of interesting production tidbits and insights into the Halo franchise.
• Pre-Release Vignettes (22:31): This collection of short pieces lays the groundwork for the film, with introductions to things like cryo-sleep, the Warthog, the Insurrectionists, and interviews with the Hastati cadets.
• "Corbulo Academy of Military Science Recruitment Video" (1:50): This video stars General Black (Mike Dopud, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) pitching the school to applicants, cut with footage from the movie.
• Behind the Scenes: There are about an hour's worth of featurettes here, divided into the following parts: "Bringing Halo into Reality" (7:04), "Awakening a Sleeper: The Making of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn" (20:55), "The Perfect Spartan" (3:47), "Rendering the Real: The Design of Forward Unto Dawn" (4:24), "One Epic Tour: The Stunts of Forward Unto Dawn" (4:16), "A Drive with Warthog Pete" (3:03), "Built for Battle" (4:20), "Outfitting the War: The Costumes of Forward Unto Dawn (3:39), "The Final Arc" (3:04), and "Tether to Digital Space" (2:51).
• Isolated Score
• "Red Vs. Blue PSA: Sleeper" (3:23) This goofy cryotube bit was created by Rooster Teeth to celebrate Halo's live action feature debut.
• "Sully's Comm Database": A collection of photos, storyboards and concept art, visual effects models, and full screen reproductions of the animated computer interfaces that appear in the film.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn doesn't quite work as its own movie apart from the juggernaut that is Halo 4, but it's a major step forward not only for video game tie-ins, but also for the Halo franchise. Viewers' patience during the slower early parts pays off at the end, once a certain Spartan shows up to finish the fight and kick Covenant butt. Knowing full well that people can watch the entire movie online, 343 and Microsoft have put out an impressive Blu-ray package with a killer hi-def presentation and more bonus features than you can shake an Energy Sword at.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Microsoft Films
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