Something surprising happened this weekend. I watched a good science fiction movie. This happens rarely, because Hollywood doesn’t really understand SF. I usually watch an SF movie with hopeful trepidation, expecting my hopes for a movie with a comprehensible plot, believable science, and strong characters to be dashed with callous disregard by overhyped directors or buried under overblown CGI. When the end of the movie arrives, and none of these things have happened, then the reaction slowly sinks in: “Hey, that was a pretty good movie.”
The film I watched was Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, and it has a very interesting history. Halo is a popular game series created by Microsoft (well, some other companies actually did the game development work) for the XBox platform. The games are military-oriented combat games set in a complex and well-defined background reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Known Space series.
The story of the making of the film is almost as interesting as the film itself.
The Making of the Film
With Halo 4 about to be released, Microsoft wanted to do something new and different to help promote the game. They’d had success previously with some online video teasers, directed by Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9 and Elysium. They decided to up the ante by producing a web series to promote the release of the latest game, with five episodes of 15-minutes or more to be released online. The producers went one step further and decided to created a story that would allow the five segments to slot together seamlessly as a 90-minute movie.
Microsoft dedicated a budget of about 10 million dollars to the web series. Depending on how you look at it, this probably makes it the most expensive web series of all time, or a solid low-budget film. The film also has more than 400 CGI shots, which is far less than the average Hollywood tentpole movie, but far more than a typical low-budget indie film.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn takes place in 2525 and tells the story of Thomas Lasky, a young cadet at the Corbulo Military Academy. Humanity has spread out across the stars and now has colonies on many planets, with order maintained by the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). However, all is not well. There is widespread unrest across the colonies, and a group known as the Insurrectionists are fighting what amounts to a civil war against the UNSC.
Against this backdrop, Lasky and his fellow cadets are learning the art of war. The film is very effective at making this futuristic military school seem believable. Meanwhile, Lasky is conflicted about the war with the Insurrectionists, and has decisions to make about whether his future lies in the military. All of the cadets are unaware that a new and even more dangerous war is about to start.
The film has a solid, coming-of-age plot that works very well. The characters seem believable, although one could quibble that they’re a little bit stereotypical. However, the spot-on dialog and crisp direction make them seem very real in a short period of time. I also liked the prologue that introduced the cadets — experimental though it might have been, I thought it worked exceedingly well.
The action, both the training exercises and later combat scenes, were stunning. I have read some reviews that described the movie as a little slow in the beginning. I disagree. I thought it was exceptionally well-paced. The concentration on character development made you actually care about the characters, which was essential to the conclusion of the film. I can only conclude that younger film-goers may be unfamiliar with character development, probably because it’s so seldom seen in Hollywood blockbusters like the (awful) Transformers movies.
My biggest quibble with the movie comes from the framing story, which may be somewhat opaque to an audience unfamiliar with the Halo universe. Accordingly, I will provide some explanation of the framing story. I don’t think that explaining the framing story in advance detracts from the film, but some may consider it a spoiler. Accordingly, skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to see the explanation until later.
After the prologue introducing the cadets, the film credits show the interior of a wrecked starship, the Forward Unto Dawn
, which was ripped apart at the end of the game, Halo 3
. The ship’s AI, Cortana, has a sent a Mayday signal, and has subsequently begun to go slowly insane (which will be a running plot thread in the Halo 4
game). The only survivor on board the ship is the legendary, genetically engineered soldier known as the Master Chief, who has gone into cryo storage until he’s needed. After more than four years, the distress signal is received by a much older Thomas Lasky, clearly a high-level commander in the military.
Most of the movie is a flashback, as Thomas Lasky remembers his time at the Corbulo Military Academy, and his first encounter with the Master Chief. At the end of the film, Lasky and the ships under his command move off into slipspace to answer the distress signal, which directly initiates the events of the Halo 4 game.
It’s a solid film, with a complex and consistent science fiction background, characters that you can care about, dangerous aliens, and stunningly realistic combat. It’s also got, as far as I know, the first instance of a space elevator (or space tether as the producers referred to it) to ever appear in a film. To me, that by itself is kind of a big deal.
I recommend the film to both Halo fans and to others outside the game community who just want to see a good movie. My one caveat for “outsiders” is that the framing story may be a little confusing to those not familiar with the game background.
The movie is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Since it was released to help advertise the game, it’s also free to watch in many venues, such as Hulu. The DVD/Blu-Ray editions have about an hour of extras, which I thought was well worth the price.