Director – Stewart Hendler, Screenplay – Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing, Photography – Brett Pawlak, Music – Nathan Lanier, Halo 4 Music and Theme – Neil Davidge, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor – John E. Sullivan, Visual Effects – Arc Productions (Supervisor – Terry Bradley), Special Effects Supervisor – Gary Minielly, Specialty Costumes and Weapons – Legacy Effects (Supervisor – J. Alan Scott), Production Design – Kasra Farahani. Production Company – 343 Industries
Tom Green (Thomas Lasky), Anna Popplewell (Chyler Silva), Enisha Brewster (April Drenski), Daniel Cudmore (Master Chief), Masam Holden (Michael Sullivan), Ayelet Zurer (Colonel Mehaffey), Iain Belcher (Walter Vickers), Kat De Lieva (Dimah Tchakova), Osric Chau (Junjie Chen), Mike Dopud (General Black), Max Carver (Cadmon Lasky), Alex Puccinelli (Voice of Master Chief), Ty Olsson (Adult Lasky)
Thomas Lasky is a rookie in military training at the Corbulo Academy on the planet Circinus IV. He is struggling to keep up and follow in the family military tradition. He is then diagnosed with a rare allergy to the chemicals used in the cryo-sleep mix and offered a medical discharge. Before he can decide, the planet comes under unexpected attack by the alien Covenant. As everybody else on the planet is slaughtered, the UNSC soldier Master Chief appears to guide Lasky and the remaining members of his squad to escape offworld.
Halo is a massively popular videogame series. Beginning with Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) from Microsoft Studios, it has become one of the most acclaimed modern videogames. In essence a first-person shooter game that takes place on an artificial space habitat left by an ancient alien species (at least in the original versions), it has throughout its various incarnations built out a massive backstory dealing with the history of the galaxy and its various alien peoples. Halo has attracted attention as a film project. Between 2005 and 2007, there was a proposed version with Peter Jackson as producer and Neill Blomkamp as director but this collapsed due to spiralling budget. There was subsequently Halo Legends (2010), a compilation wherein various anime directors were hired to deliver short films set in the Halo universe.
Forward Unto Dawn was a web-released mini-series of five episodes of fifteen minutes apiece made to coincide with the release of the Halo 4 (2012) videogame. It was finally compiled together and released to dvd as a single film after the premiere of the game. The game takes place on a Forerunner planet where the ongoing player character of the Master Chief encounters various of the alien Covenant. The web-series/film centres around the early training days of Thomas Lasky who is one of the major characters in Halo 4, albeit as a mature soldier. The web-series/film was shot by Stewart Hendler who was previously known for the slasher film Sorority Row (2009), a subsequent web series H+ (2011-13) and the superhero film Max Steel (2016).
I liked Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn initially. It is slickly put together with care clearly having been taken in the direction and production. That said, I soon became disappointed with it. One of the reasons for this was that it was largely a present day-set film, featuring contemporary vehicles and props (not to mention takes place at the very local location of the University of British Columbia – which is used to stand in for the military school). All that has happened is that the filmmakers have conducted the same sleight of hand as the tv series Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) in using contemporary sets, locations and props and then saying to the audience “it’s set in the future.” This is something that annoys me because it is cut-price science-fiction that only convinces people in so far as they are willing to extend the suspension of disbelief to accept it as such.
It also considerably disappoints on what one expects of a Halo film – while it is faithful to the setting and continuity details, the film has telescoped the vast scale of the games down to a mere military academy and a story about recruits in training. The games come peopled by different alien races, deal with the discovery of colossal alien artefacts and have a massive historical and future backdrop with a detailed history of the galaxy since the beginning of the universe. Up against this, a film that only trades in cliches of recruits in training seems decidedly underwhelming. To its credit, we do get an appearance of the game’s regular fixture of the player character of Master Chief towards the end, of few words and grimly intent behind his battle armour as usual. Also Legacy Effects (the former Stan Winston Studio) deliver a fine, lethal-looking Elite that turns up in the latter sections.
The film is largely conceived as the military recruits in training scenario, which we have seen through numerous films such as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and G.I. Jane (1996) to science-fictional variants such as tv’s Space: Above and Beyond (1995-6), Starship Troopers (1997) and Ender’s Game (2013). It feels like a film where all of its moves have been played out before and it is only recycling these without ever inventing any new ones of its own. They are also scenes that seem too much caught up in the adulation of military glory and far less to do with the grim brutality of warfare in the field or the soul-destroying mindlessness that boot camp is intended to conduct. The cast are generally competent, although the only recognisable face – Anna Popplewell of the Chronicles of Narnia films – seems out of her depth with posh British accent still protruding while trying to get rough and dirty as a cadet soldier. The film does get itself into action during the Covenant invasion during the latter third but these combat scenes are low-scale and low-budget, competently handled and all as they are.
This was followed by the much superior Halo Nightfall (2014), which was similarly released as a five-episode webseries and then compiled as a film, and retains a much more authentic feel of the games.