Excitement for the Ridley Scott produced companion to Xbox’s hugely successful Halo series was understandably high. Not only had the Halo series grown in terms of digital awe as the games progressed, rounding out a thrilling sci-fi world with an epically scored soundtrack, but it had captured imaginations across numerous platforms. How then does Halo translate to the small screen?
Sadly not as well as it does into other mediums. The overall story, tone and style are very much in keeping with the Halo games. However, what Nightfall misses overall is heart, that piece of humanity in TV and movie storytelling that draws you to the characters and gets you to care about what happens to them.
Agent Locke’s (Mike Coulter) origin story should be a flashback level in one of the Halo games. It’s follows the format of many a Halo opening, with a civilized area leading to a deployment somewhere unknown, followed by a reason they can’t escape and then an actual solution. This is simplified down but not as far from the truth as viewers might like.
As our protagonist, Locke is tough but fair. He is hugely loyal, in a very military way, though he has his kind moments of polite civility – which for the purposes of Halo: Nightfall means not mocking the only person/woman who shows any emotion that isn’t anger. He is clearly meant to be a compassionate leader, yet one who will get the job done, making him very much in the shadow and form of Master Chief (the lead character in the Halo games) in this universe.
The incident that leads the team to landing on a fragment of the original Halo ring is one of the most interesting parts of the story. In the opening instalment we get to see nods to the video games with the starting weaponry of assault rifle and pistol just as you’d remember them from Halo 1. The use of prosthetics and CGI for the alien species, aka the Covenant, is well balanced so that you get larger than life creatures but in a physically believable way.
What is infuriating about Nightfall is how close to right it is. All the pieces are there but somehow they are left to fall flat. In part this is probably down to the direction of the story. Its narrative follows so closely to the video game form that it has forgotten about that forth dimension that changes the stakes. As a game, the main character is being played by the audience. Their investment is in not wanting to die, making decisions about when to run and when to fight. Risking their virtual lives adds an exhilaration level that doesn’t come across otherwise.
Paul T Scheuring writes an interesting, potentially compelling, story, but not in this form. The parts that scream out for action are left empty and when the action does come it’s the same sentient school of alien leeches over and over. Even the body mimic tactic this new monster uses if quickly ushered aside the moment it appears.
On to the positive side, making the ONI characters have to lose their armour in order to survive is an interesting choice. It changes up the idea that they could all be superheroes and forces them to get back to basics. As Locke says “there’s more to a soldier than just his armour”, something that is almost the opposite and yet right alongside Master Chief.
The only character with remote likeability was Christina Chong’s Macer. As the ‘glorified bus driver’ who is actually allowed to have sympathetic emotions, she and Locke play nicely off one another. Clearly a bond is being formed and perhaps a role for her in the Halo 5: Guardians game is likely. Yet she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to develop into a more rounded character.
The god-like voiceover of Nightfall is done by Randall Aiken, Colonel on Sedra and former Spartan (apparently). His melancholy odes appear throughout, casting despondent thoughts on moments of inaction, while the weary soldiers rest. He’s entirely stereotypical; a returned from war soldier who doesn’t have any reason to survive and is willing to sacrifice it all for the greater good. In a way this is his swan song.
Most of the other characters are filler, played off one another for dramatic effect as they struggle to survive. There is mild interest in wondering who will start turning on the others but it quickly becomes apparent once we get to know them a little.
If we take Halo: Nightfall as a standalone it’s a middle ground piece; worth watching if you’re invested in the Halo franchise but probably not worth your time if not. Unless you want to see some very Prometheus-esque scenes.
Comparatively, Nightfall fails where the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn film succeeded. Forward was able to set itself in the Halo universe but gave us interesting characters that we could care about. It treated us to elements of the Halo universe but always kept us at the same human level as our main characters. It had those emotional strings along with brilliant action. Nightfall barely scraped by on both counts.