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Blu-Ray Review: Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

Master Chief grenade jumps into live-action with impressive special effects and a mediocre screenplay.

I am a Halo fan, having played and enjoyed – to varying degrees – every game in the series except Halo Wars (not into RTS’s, sorry) and Halo 4, which I am waiting to play through on my Christmas break. I have not read the expanded universe novels, so maybe that makes me a bad person, but I choose to forgive myself. When the webs series “Forward Unto Dawn” premiered on Machinima earlier this year, I was interested but too busy to really delve into it. But in Blu-ray form, compiled together as a movie, that’s something I couldn’t ignore. So I popped it in, sat myself down, and hoped for the best. What I got… was the CW version of the Halo franchise.

The series, which acts as a prequel to Halo 4 and the original Halo itself, focuses on a group of teenaged officer cadets at the Corbulo Military Academy. They’re a varied sort in both gender and ethnicity, and comprise such familiar archetypes as “the tech guy,” “the true believer” and “the natural leader who hasn’t accepted the mantle yet.” The first three episodes of the five part series, comprising half of the movie version found on the Blu-ray, are standard soap opera melodrama, with romance, conspiracies and training exercises that betray a heavy inspiration from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The dialogue is dry, the acting is a mixed bag, and it feels like the pilot episode of a television series I probably wouldn’t bother to DVR. It’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly interesting either until the Elites show up and blow the whole planet to hell.

The second half of “Forward Unto Dawn” follows the surviving members of the cast as they dodge the first assault from the Covenant, an alien race intent on destroying all of humanity (there’s more to it than that, but you’d have to have played the games to know what it is). At this point, “Forward Unto Dawn” acquires a powerful intensity because these characters are thoroughly screwed. Before long we discover that they’re the only survivors on the entire planet, forced to face off against – or more accurately desperately avoid – invisible Elite warriors intent on murdering them all.

“Forward Unto Dawn” makes the most of its budget in the second half, with the aliens spectacularly realized in all their intimidating glory and various elements of the video games brought into a satisfying live-action universe that makes one wonder why the hell a Halo movie never got off the ground. It’s a thrill ride from the halfway point until the end, and even the somewhat disappointing first half seems better in retrospect, having characterized the cast just well enough to make us care when they die and cheer when they survive. It’s a pity that the characters aren’t a little more interesting, but that’s what Master Chief is for.

Master Chief’s appearance in “Forward Unto Dawn” is an intensely satisfying experience. Played by Daniel Cudmore (Colossus from X2: X-Men United), a towering actor even in person, the iconic figure looks and feels just right. He doesn’t sound right, since voice-over actor Steve Downes is absent for some reason, but Cudmore does his best to approximate his gravelly tenor, and despite the initial distraction you do get used to him, and he ultimately gets away with it. It’s too bad, because if Downes had provided the voice of Master Chief, the illusion of a live-action Halo game would have been complete.

“Forward Unto Dawn” grenade-jumps onto Blu-ray with some impressive special features, including an extended behind the scenes feature (split into individual segments, if that’s your bag) that answers most of the questions you could have about the production – both artistic and commercial – and spends a lot of its time focusing on the fun stuff, like the series’ practical effects, stunts and paraphernalia. There are not one but two commentary tracks, from the director Stewart Hendler (who previously helmed the surprisingly decent horror remake Sorority Row), and 343 Industries, the studio that brought you the most recent game in the franchise, Halo 4. The transfer is crisp and clear, the audio pounds out your speakers. It's a great release.

Despite some initial storytelling awkwardness, “Forward Unto Dawn” manages to transform itself into a satisfying action series/film that handsomely brings Halo into the live-action filmmaking realm. If the characters had been less clichéd, it could have been an absolute triumph. As it stands, the film plays like the best SyFy Channel Original Movie you’ve ever seen, compensating for its narrative simplicity with great action sequences and visual effects. If your version of Halo 4 didn’t come with this series, as some did, it’s a fine purchase for Halo fans. If you’re not terribly familiar with the video game franchise, “Forward Unto Dawn” will only seem like an average, or perhaps above-average sci-fi thriller, because the thrill of seeing “real” Elites and a live-action Master Chief will be non-existent. Then again, if you haven’t played Halo yet, “Forward Unto Dawn” isn’t the best place to start anyway.

So buy the damned games already. 
 

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

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William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani