Beyond the Frontline is a regular feature where the staff here get up on the soapbox and put forward an idea or question relating to Halo. Each BTF is a talking point designed to start a dialogue and unlike our regular word blasts and articles, the entries are short and sweet.
Time flies. Come late September, Halo 3 hits its fifth release anniversary. 2007 was a different place. Halo was no doubt the most aggressively hyped and marketed video game in history. There was the game, sure, but there were also action figures, Mountain Dew cans, Slurpee cups, a branded Xbox, and a sponsored stock car. Perhaps most importantly, the fan community was abuzz with tantalizing snippets of Blompkamp’s “Landfall” Halo short–the remains of the aborted Halo film that fell apart in the months before Halo 3.
Part of the reason for the film’s failure to materialize was Microsoft’s steep terms–$10 million against 15% of the gross. Even a script hand-delivered by Master Chief himself wasn’t going to make that proposition palatable for movie studios. Add in script delays, changeovers in staff and the high cost of the principals, and it’s not surprising the film collapsed on itself .
Times have changed. Microsoft has taken it upon themselves to craft the most ambitious bit of Halo marketing ever–a live-action, all-new Halo episodic series. At 90 minutes, it is essentially the Halo film realized in a form unlike any Halo fans–or gamers in general–are accustomed to seeing.
There are no studios foisting their screenwriters on the project. The director is hardly Peter Jackson–Stewart Hendler’s biggest credit is the 2009 college coed horror film Sorority Row. The budget is far from the hundreds of millions spent on the average AAA blockbuster these days.
All these facts are good things.
Microsoft is hardly taking the film lightly–the cost of the film is estimated at $5 to $10 million . To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the cost, if not more, than *all* the marketing for Halo 3 combined. And a film trumps a bunch of Mountain Dew cans any day.
Surprisingly, Forward Unto Dawn may be in some respects the Halo film we might have seen back in 2006. In an interview after the Halo film imploded, Blompkamp revealed that he saw the Chief as a support role, rather than the focus of a film:
“I think what it boiled down to with the film was really a question of ‘Who is the main character of the movie?’ Is it the Master Chief or is it somebody else? And over time I think everybody around the table agreed that the Master Chief is best left as the most important supporting cast member. Where the Master Chief doesn’t have a face, but he has a whole body to emote with, whether it’s his spine, or his shoulders. or the tilt of his head, or the way he slumps or reloads his weapon. There are these kinesthetic responses that he’ll have which will really easily communicate the character and what he’s feeling. That’s hard to carry as a main character for an entire film. But you can certainly surround him with people who don’t have helmets on and you can see their faces.” —Newsweek
Watching the just-released trailer, the most striking element is that it doesn’t focus on special effects. No doubt much of the postproduction work is still ongoing, but you only need to compare this trailer with any of the aforementioned blockbusters to see what is emphasized. The typical trailer opens with sweeping shots, throws some snappy dialogue that can summarize the threadbare plots in seconds, and then move right on to the frenetic editing of explosions and larger explosions, accompanied by music and the now-ubiquitous “angry boat“. While the Forward Unto Dawn trailer might have borrowed a few slow-motion sequences left over from the last Zack Snyder film, the trailer still feels much broader than most films ever try to be. This isn’t just about guns blazing.
“We want this piece to do all the things that a game, by virtue of being a game, can’t,” said producer Lydia Antonini, a former Warner Bros. executive who is one of several experienced Hollywood hands Microsoft hired. “When you have real people, you can have real stakes and make connections.” –The Los Angeles Times
Before the Master Chief comes in to shoot guns, and even after, the focus is hardly on him. The trailer takes a large amount of time to set up a bunch of nobodies–military cadets who, in a break with entertainment tradition, actually look their age. They don’t look very heroic or muscle-bound–one even has thick-framed glasses. Microsoft is pulling an interesting gambit here–creating a series that does not attempt to distill the classic supersoldier vibe from the games, and instead wants people to connect with characters who will most likely be part of Halo 4 or the tie-in novels’ supporting cast. In the beginning, they are fighting amongst themselves–by the end, they are mostly running from the Covenant.
That the trailer borrows from the language of horror films (unseen monsters, people disappearing into smoke and gloom) is unsurprising–343i undoubtedly considered Hendler’s pedigree before offering him the job. Over the past few years, Bungie and 343i endeavored to remake the Covenant–turn them from old hat into a serious threat. While Bungie was successful in remaking the Covenant stylistically, attempts at making them fearsome largely failed. A cinematic adaptation might be the best option to not only treat them like the stuff of horrors, but show players what going up against a squad of Elites must feel like for the ordinary soldiers of Halo–outmatched and underpowered against an imposing, pitiless force.
Microsoft has made players care about tangental or one-off characters before–the masterful Halo 3 and ODST ads “Believe” and “The Life”–but there’s always been a disconnect between the product advertised and the product sold. Halo 3 was ultimately not a story of a few desperate soldiers in a trench who looked for a hero and found the Master Chief. It was a galaxy-spanning sci-fi space opera. As Gamecritics noted, the ads “promised a game that Bungie didn’t even bother trying to produce” .
This time, however, Microsoft is setting out to create a standalone work that explores those themes in a far more in-depth manner. In a sense, making people care about a few people for the span of a :30 spot is easy, but keeping that emotional investment for a work 180 times that length is another matter. It’s up to a good script and good actors to do that legwork. All the special effects, no matter how impressive, will not be the ingredient that makes Forward Unto Dawn a success.
Video game adaptations have been uniformly bad, but Forward Unto Dawn isn’t a video game adaptation in a spiritual sense. And if Microsoft and its partners pull it off, it could be the best “game movie” we’ve ever seen. If they could make an excellent sci-fi bildungsroman, then adapting the video games proper would be a trivial task in comparison.
This might not be the movie we were expecting, but I’d argue it’s the movie we need.