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Matt Kamen looks at Halo’s troubled path from game to film

27th May sees the release of Halo: Forward Unto Dawn, courtesy of our friends at Anchor Bay. While the video games that inspired it have proven hugely popular – and, along with Mass Effect, become arguably the finest examples of long-form science fiction storytelling of the last decade – Microsoft’s Halo franchise has struggled to make it to the big screen.

Halo: Combat Evolved, the first game in the series, launched to considerable acclaim on the original Xbox in November 2001. Originally developed by Bungie, it introduced players to the now-iconic elite soldier Master Chief and the far-flung war between humans and the Covenant, an alliance of alien races. While the gameplay stood out by offering an engaging first-person shooter experience on console – a rarity at the time, bar outliers such as Goldeneye 007 – it was the surprisingly rich universe the games presented that demanded attention. The unfolding war wasn’t a strict good-vs-evil affair, and the human military forces were of questionable morality. Children were secretly kidnapped, then genetically and cybernetically enhanced to provide a fighting force capable of withstanding the vastly superior enemy onslaught. The series’ core conflict isn’t so much ‘Earth vs Aliens’ as it is the value of an individual’s humanity versus Humanity as a whole.

With both depth and flashy sci-fi visuals to offer, movie studios became interested almost immediately. It took until 2005 for Hollywood’s lumbering wheels to begin turning on the project though. A script penned by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) was pitched around, and for a time 20th Century Fox and Universal were planning to co-operate on production. Plans progressed to the point where Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) was attached as executive producer, and a pre-District 9 Neill Blomkamp was set to direct – a position earned from the strength of his trilogy of short films set in the Halo Universe, used to promote the third Halo game. However, after numerous re-writes and budget concerns, the movie stalled and eventually died.

Instead of Hollywood, Microsoft next looked east. With the success of anime anthology projects such as The Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knights no doubt an influence, the game maker collaborated with a cadre of top-tier animation studios (including Evangelion’s Production IG and Tekkonkinkreet’s Studio 4C) and directors to create Halo Legends. Consisting of seven shorts, each offered a different insight into the mythology set up in the video games. Vignettes such as Toshiyuki Kanno’s ‘The Babysitter’ channelled the frantic shooter action of the source, while the poignant ‘Homecoming’, directed by Koji Sawai, focused on the stolen lives of the powerful SPARTAN soldiers. Dragon Ball director Daisuke Nishio even created a spoof for the collection, parodying the otherwise sombre franchise. Halo Legends succeeded largely on the basis of showcasing lesser-known aspects of the franchise, rather than trying to directly adapt any of the games.

Not content to let their live-action dreams die, Microsoft and new Halo developer 343 Industries next shifted focus to this latest outing, Forward Unto Dawn. Originally broadcast as a five-part webseries preceding the release of Halo 4, it combines the raw energy of Blomkamp’s Halo 3 shorts with Halo Legends’ efforts to show other sides of the interplanetary war. Set on the remote colony planet Cirnicus-IV, the movie follows a group of military cadets. Initially training to engage in a civil war between the core worlds of the expanded human empire and more remote insurrectionists, the cadets’ natural fears and doubts over combat and duty are magnified as they uncover hints of a greater threat lurking at the edges of uncharted space.

Directed by Stewart Hendler, Forward Unto Dawn may not be the big budget blockbuster some are hoping for but it does set the stage for greater things to come. The film serves as both an origin for supporting characters recognisable to fans of the games – notably Captain Thomas Lasky – and an introduction for newcomers to the earliest days of the Covenant hostilities. While rumours of another cinematic attempt continue, this prequel captures the emotional weight of war and proves there’s far more to Halo than mere visual spectacle.

Halo: Forward Unto Dawn is out on 27th May from Anchor Bay.

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