The Morality of Conflict: Halo S1E1, “Contact”

The following contains spoilers for Halo S1E1, “Contact” (written by Kyle Killen & Steven Kane and directed by Otto Bathurst)

As the theme song from Star Trek: Enterprise says, “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here,” and the journey for Halo from video game to the screen has been a long one beset by many problems and issues. However, it’s finally here! Paramount + debuted its first episode of what it hopes will be a long-running epic sci-fi series based on the worldwide phenomenon Halo.

The TV series is not based on any one game but is a program that will be taken from the vast game mythology to craft a story of the war between the United Nations Space Command (or UNSC) and the brutal alien civilization known as The Convenient.

While I have played the first game in the Halo series and know a little bit of lore, I would not consider myself an expert on the franchise, but what I have played left me excited for this show!

The Morality of Conflict

Pablo Schreiber as The Master Chief in green armor standing with his back to a raging fire

At the heart of this pilot episode is the exploration of black and white morals. At its start we follow a young girl named Kwan who is the daughter of the rebel leader of the planet of Madrigal. We hear the rebels speak of the UNSC Spartans as brutal un-killable monsters who have been slaughtering them for years.

However when the Convenient attacks the rebel outpost and is tearing through the men, women, and children, the Spartans (led by The Master Chief) drop from the sky and effortlessly kill all of the Convenient forces—seemingly helping the people who they had been killing before.

Things get murky when we find out that the UNSC only saved Kwan to use her as a puppet to convince the other rebel planets to join with the UNSC. While it’s not an unreasonable request, after Kwan threatens to lie and claim the Master Chief killed her people, we find out the UNSC puts out a kill order on Kwan.

This episode choosing to go in the direction of showing that while the Convenient is evil, the UNSC is at best morally grey and losing its humanity in the fight to survive is really interesting. It adds a new layer to the classic “Humans vs Aliens” conflict we have seen a million times.

Blood Guts and Brotherhood

Soliders stand wearing armor and holding long guns in Halo S1E1, "Contact"

Halo S1E1 does not shy away from blood and guts, with a group of teens being shown getting blown to pieces in the first 10 minutes. The combat is visceral and exciting and very R-rated; the carnage that the Convenient inflicts on the defenseless humans is at times hard to watch. With one moment showing a group of young people and kids get slaughtered (it’s off-screen but still hard), all the violence and hopelessness does make the arrival of The Master Chief all the more satifying, when he lands and begins to effortlessly kill all the Convenient. He is a monster to them, with one of them yelling “Demon” at his arrival, and he is as merciless to them as they were to the humans.

The episode also showcases the bond of brotherhood between the Spartans and Master Chief. They fight as a unit and help each other, and do seem to care for one another as much as they are allowed to by the programming.

We only get hints to Master Chief’s background, but we learn that he and the other Spartans have been “Created” and enhanced by Dr. Halsey in order to fight the Convenient, and that the UNSC monitor and can remotely control all aspects of their equipment. Master Chief is shown as cold, obeying orders without question (even killing civilians when they have been deemed a threat). 

This all changes when he touches an alien artifact and begins to have visions of a past he may have lived, a past that was supposedly “Erased” by the UNSC. It is these visions that begin to make Master Chief question his orders for the first time in his life, and ultimately reject the kill order he receives for Kwan.

The show treats these feelings as less new and more repressed by the programming of the UNSC. When Master Chief goes rogue and refuses to kill Kwan, the UNSC orders him to be neutralized. However, his creator Dr. Catherine Halsey secretly calls his squad, countermands the orders, and says that Master Chief is to be taken alive, even if they have to engage friendlies to do it, to which one of the Spartans replies, “If they go after Chief, they’re not friendlies.” Which begs the question, would his Spartan squad have protected him and disobeyed orders even without Dr. Halsey? 

Halo S1E1 ends with Master Chief escaping, but his squad is willing to fight 200 marines to protect him if necessary.

Filmmaking, Acting, and CGI

UNSC pelican ship hovers over the lading bay in front of dozens of marines and jeeps

The acting for this first episode is good and it’s clear that all the actors are doing their best to bring the characters to life. I never once felt like any of the preferences were bad or took me out of the story. The cast is filled out by such veteran actors as Burn Gorman, Bokeem Woodbine, Natascha McElhone, and Pablo Schreiber, as well as a number of newcomers. 

The CGI is fine, albeit sometimes a bit wonky. The opening battle is thrilling but has a few moments where Master Chief or the aliens feel a bit rubberish—I think it may have been better to frame the opening battle at dusk when some of the show’s more obvious CGI issues could’ve been hidden. That being said, the planet of Reach and the ships are beautifully rendered, as is the set design, so it’s my hope the show’s CGI will improve.

Halo S1E1 does not reinvent the wheel when it comes to cinematography, but we are still treated to some nice shots of the planet of Madrigal as well as Reach. Overall its camera work did exactly what it was supposed to do: frame and show us the action. It was not fancy but it really did not need to be.

In closing

The first episode of Halo is a strong opening for the series. Despite some wonky CGI, I felt it did its job of introducing viewers to its world. The action starts off almost immediately and the plot never lets up from then on—it’s a roller coaster ride.

While the show is itself a reimagining of the video games, there were enough Easter eggs and “ripped from the pages” moments for me to be happy as a player of the first game. That being said this show is clearly also aiming at casual non-video-game-playing audiences. I watched this episode with my mom who is not a huge fan of science fiction, and at the end, she said, “Well that was great!” So I think this show will be popular with both gamers and non-gamers.

If you like science fiction, military action, or just a fun action-adventure, then check out Halo, you just may enjoy it!

Written by Byron Lafayette

Journalist, film critic, and author, with a (possibly unhealthy) obsession with Pirates of the Caribbean, Zack Snyder and movies in general, Byron has written for many publications over the years, yet never shows his face. To partially quote (and mangle) Batman V Superman "If you seek his face look around you"

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