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That Time I Reincarnated as Master Chief in a Puppet Universe Natascha McElhone Uses to Feed on Her Zombified Castmates

A man of few words walks into town. His immense stature makes him immediately recognizable, and his reputation has others eager to throw down. Thankfully, his skill at fighting and ability to analyze any danger is unparalleled. He’s spoken about with either hate or reverence. A few good people are willing to help him despite his taciturn demeanor. They don’t even mind when he overrides their suggestions. In fact, the few words he speaks hide a cutting intelligence in one of the most surprisingly good roles of the year. But that’s enough about “The Witcher”, “Reacher”, “The Mandalorian”, and Fox Mulder for now. We’re here to talk about Calculon’s greatest role and rubberneck at the wiki-how for capsizing that is “Halo”.

After last week’s update, we left Master Chief defying the UNSC and rescuing a rebel girl he was ordered to kill. Not sure if they’ve explained what the UNSC is, so I’ve just assumed it’s United North and South Carolina. “Halo” presents a truly terrifying vision of the future.

The rebel Kwan Ha has come to terms with finding out Master Chief once assassinated her mother, so now they’re best friends who joke around. Or she is. Master Chief is all like, “How dare you”, which you know, maybe the rest of us would have given a courtesy laugh in that situation but Master Chief doesn’t know how to take the win. It’s the kind of thing that could have been ironed out with another script draft, but whatevs.

Anyway, Master Chief just escaped from the UNSC base. It was armed to the teeth with space fighters, countless ships, and bazillions of soldiers, creating the perfect opportunity for a chase sequence or some of the over-the-top, ship-hopping space action that defines the “Halo” game series. What riveting show-off set piece do they have prepared to open the second episode and hook us into the show forevermore?

Cut to a conference meeting – but I don’t think you understand how well this conference meeting is done. All the side characters get to say exactly one thing they could have sent in an email while Natascha McElhone smiles like she’s gonna eat the last french fry on your plate and you can’t do shit to stop her. Few shows have ever captured so well the ennui of being prevented from leaving early that day.

Of course, this meeting is important because it establishes that McElhone’s Dr. Halsey is going to do something to Master Chief and the Spartans that easily could’ve been described in a much shorter scene. She’s going to brainwash their brainwashing to brainwash them even way more harder. In fact, maybe it didn’t even need to be mentioned. Brainwashing in general kinda covers that you’re going to do it some more. You know what, this is something else that could’ve been condensed with another script draft, but who has that kind of time?

Where are Master Chief and his new ward going? To a boss looking asteroid colony. This really highlights how good the background and location VFX are on “Halo”. Anything that’s too distant to make out properly looks great. The problem is, “Halo” then asks things to move – often in the foreground. This is what we generally call filmmaking, but it’s where “Halo” loses the thread. Anything moving in the foreground remains animated with such disconnection to physics that it makes you think it’s going to glitch out and crash your TV or phone or whatever it is you’re watching on and maybe some things you aren’t.

The asteroid colony is where Master Chief’s old friend Soren lives. See, Soren escaped the brainwashing facility that made Master Chief a superhuman Spartan in the first place. Having escaped, Soren has these things called emotions. It’s the first we’ve seen these “emotions” in the series outside of McElhone looking at the scenery and going, “I did miss lunch”.

Soren lives with his flapper space wife and their young son, who’s been raised for the sole purpose of being used as a guilt trip on Master Chief about not having kids. Wait, is Master Chief’s character development just Jessica Chastain’s* from “Jurassic World” without getting to fight dinosaurs in heels?

It obviously makes a deep impression on Master Chief since he goes everywhere without a helmet now. I know “Halo” is still extremely self-conscious about not being “The Mandalorian”, so it wants its character famous for never removing his helmet to spend more than half his screentime so far without it. Perhaps the wiser move might have been to avoid copying half the plot of “The Mandalorian”, but no, I’m sure whether he wears his helmet is the big difference. This is what happens when you just don’t have enough time to hammer out that script. Oh well.

How do we know Soren can really be trusted? Cause he stops at a street vendor and gets churros. My man. But then he gives away his churros. What the fuck? Airlock that traitor.

Also something about the end of the universe and how Master Chief is the key to unlocking it. Instead of taking some solid advice to destroy the ancient wotsit the aliens need to go all end-times, Master Chief is like, “What if I just take it and me back to United North and South Carolina that I spent all this time making sure didn’t get hold of it and make both episodes functionally meaningless”? Having never seen a sci-fi or fantasy movie before in my life, I’m sure that’ll go well.

It’s only at the end, when Master Chief returns to Dr. Halsey and is allowed to act for an entire five seconds in a show ostensibly based around acting with actors who are supposed to act that the real purpose of all that helmet doffing occurred to me. You’d think it’s so Pablo Schreiber could do some of that acting stuff that’s all the rage, but it’s already firmly established that “Halo” is against this kind of thing. Maybe we can dig deeper.

I’ll put this diplomatically: the plot of “Halo” makes no sense. Showrunner Steven Kane was proud of publicizing that this show went through 265 script drafts, and it shows. Oh shit, what? That’s…that’s millions in scripts for something with zero personality. In his defense, I guess it’s easy to lose the source material in that amount of time. Oh wait. He also said, “We didn’t look at the game. We didn’t talk about the game.” Uh.

Can you imagine doing that to a book or classic movie? ‘Imma adapt this without looking at it’ sure is a flex. Maybe the problem with so many video game adaptations not being good is that the people put in charge of them are too scared to adapt the actual source material that already exists and that other people worked their asses off to create. They look down on it or can’t understand why it draws people in. “I’ll just put my own thing on top of it, whoops I just made D-grade Mandalorian, I better take off his helmet” isn’t an achievement. I already wrote that when I was seven and it didn’t take me 265 drafts.

Look, I’m not particularly into “Halo”; it’s not like they’re adapting “Thief” or “System Shock” or “Dishonored”. I have no ship in this torpedo relay. What I do have is a morbid fascination with the anatomy of an anthropogenic hazard on this scale. We are talking about a franchise that’s earned $6.5 billion, which puts it on par with Fast & Furious and above the DCEU, Ice Age, Shrek, Beauty and the Beast, Game of Thrones…a hell of a lot that people expect to be treated with some amount of quality control and respect for what’s come before. Remember how upset people were when they realized “Game of Thrones” was never all that good– and of course I mean when it suddenly and unexpectedly became bad in a way no one could have predicted? That’s what’s coming at us straight out of the gate with “Halo”.

I find myself thinking a lot these days about “Vagrant Queen”, which was way better than this and made with a single box of pocket lint, duct tape, and high quality sneering. It was a failure, but it was such a fun failure I gladly would have watched seasons and seasons of it. We’re two episodes into “Halo” and I give up. But at the same time I still want to write excruciatingly niche jokes and, unlike the showrunners, I need source material and that means watching more of it. So now I choose to watch “Halo” as something else, something far more insidious and sinister.

I have chosen to watch “Halo” as a meta-narrative where Natascha McElhone has created a pocket dimension to trap her fellow actors and drain their very souls. It’s kind of like “House of Leaves” meets “The Thief of Always”, where McElhone is playing the house in both instances. “The Thief of Always” is a Clive Barker novel about a kid who stumbles on a vampire house that turns children into fish – it’s dope. “House of Leaves” is a frightening experiment in kerning.

The point is that instead of viewing “Halo” the way it’s told, which is to say while sleeping, it can instead be viewed as a man being trapped in Natascha McElhone’s puppet universe, a dimension of her own creation that she uses to harvest the energy from the souls of fellow actors. See, it makes sense because she’s the only one acting, while everyone else seems to have been drained of the impulse to try. How else is she the only one capable of escaping the deleterious effects “Halo” has on every other actor? She’s an energy vampire feeding on her castmates. What other explanation is there? Unfocused writing and lackadaisical direction on a project that has 265 script drafts and costs $10 million an episode? Well yes, obviously, but I need some continuing reason to make myself watch this crap.

So where does Master Chief come in? He’s trying to act like he can’t act so he can go unnoticed as long as possible. It turns whatever this is into a harrowing tale of survival. Can he make it long enough for Sam and Dean to burst in, punch up some thralls, and be all like, “Don’t worry, Master Chief, we’ll salt some saltshot into this salt circle to salt Natascha McElhone away saltily”. I mean did “Supernatural” get paid by the fucking National Salt Council? I’m not judging; renew the damn contract.

“Halo” the show is already spinning wheels and its second episode isn’t just pointless; it actively doubles back on nearly everything accomplished in the first and second episode. It’s filler that retroactively converts previous content to filler. But “Halo” the isekai? That’s just getting started, and I can’t wait to see more in the Natascha McElhone Energy Vampire Universe.

Oh shit, I didn’t even get to the rhyming dictator guy.

Master Chief could’ve walked around this, but that wouldn’t have taken up 30 seconds of my life:

*Yes, I know, she’s not Jessica Chastain.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount Plus. Why you would is beyond me, but you can.

If you like this, buy me a coffee for my suffering.

I Time-Traveled to 90’s Sci-Fi and All I Got was this “Halo” Premiere

Once every few years, a prophesied sci-fi property arrives to upend our expectations of what’s possible. Our understanding of linear criticism is challenged as the spectrum of good to bad is made meaningless. It’s more like a rhombic polyhedron anyway. “Halo” is based on the vaunted and lore-filled video game franchise, and watching the series premiere is like watching that episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where all the timelines collapse and thousands of Rikers are left hungrily eyeing each other up.

But you’re not watching it, no. Instead, you’re the Rikers themselves. You’re the disheveled Riker and regular Riker, and probably that caveman Riker and the one with the fake sideburns, too. Tie that loose end up, DS9.

My point is you can love “Halo” while wondering aloud, “Someone spent money on this?” You can desperately think it’s the low point of science-fiction while eagerly anticipating the next episode. You can find its political themes evocative and wryly satirical while also identifying that they manage to be diametrically opposed with themselves in under an hour’s time. “Halo” is good. “Halo” is bad. It evokes a thousand parallel yous at once, each with a different opinion, angry at the next, upset because the Borg stole your razor yet giddy because someone’s finally making those in-universe TV shows from “Futurama” in our universe.

Behold: a bunch of rebels are talking about being rebels. They’re all like, “Oh yeah, those guys the show’s about are total badasses, I hope we don’t have to face any of them today.” This is what we in the business call foreshadowing.

But then! Aliens! Rebel kids are all like, “Let’s do drugs,” but then aliens are like, “We’re going to shoot your limbs off,” and I’m like that’s a dark goddamn turn. So the aliens plod at 3 mph because they’re really bad CGI and attack the somehow unsuspecting city on foot despite having a ship that could just vaporize them from the sky.

The rebels forget how to fight, so surprised they are by the aliens’ unique strategy of remaining almost stationary because their CGI is that bad. I suspect this is a metaphor for lag spiking in multiplayer, but either way the rebels are slaughtered. All is lost, but hark! What ship in yonder Unity-asset skybox breaks? It’s those guys wot we were talking about not moments before: the Spartans led by Master Chief!

Master Chief’s all like, “I know how to fight stationary targets” and his team does some awesome reverse side kicks and picks up the rebel’s chaingun. And I’m like, “Don’t do it, Master Chief, the rebels fired hundreds of rounds and couldn’t take down one alien,” but it’s clear I was wrong and the bullets just weren’t being fired by enough of a badass so now so he takes down three aliens with ease. I mean, shit Master Chief, I’ll be waiting for you above the saloon.

You could stick the best writers in a room together and still not come up with something like this because they’d be begging you to copywrite blogs about why Millennials don’t buy diamonds instead. There’s nothing like “Halo.” Maybe “Waterworld.” Other than “Waterworld” there’s nothing like “Halo.”

The best character in all this is Dr. Halsey, in large part because she’s being played by Natascha McElhone. She’s the only one who recognizes exactly what kind of highly produced B-material this is, where one neither takes themselves overly seriously nor chews the scenery wholesale, but rather nibbles at just enough of it for the audience to notice. You ask her, “Hey, is that scenery safe?” and she hints a smile back that suggests, “From becoming Starship Troopers? Not a chance.”

Master Chief is a member of the Spartans, who are supersoldiers at the beck and call of the UNSC. He’s the creation of Dr. Halsey, but why is the UNSC terrible? Because it enables people like Dr. Halsey to perform experiments and create supersoldiers willing to perform genocide. Luckily, people like Dr. Halsey and her supersoldiers pursue their own goals and undermine the UNSC, which is a big fuck you to the UNSC for allowing people like Dr. Halsey and her supersoldiers to pursue their own goals, which the UNSC is terrible for allowing but luckily is happening to them for allowing them to happen in the first place what even is this. The point is that I don’t fucking know, and you won’t either, but McElhone acts like she knows enough for the other people around her to go, “Hey, one of us knows, I guess that’s enough,” except some of those people are the showrunners.

Most series would look at their CGI budget and say, “Let’s film this in the evening so some shadow and color can distract from our lack of detail.” Most shows wouldn’t replace gun props in cutaway close-ups with an untextured CGI model. Most shows would study how practitioners of Parkour move or at least know how people jump or run or get up from a chair or put their heads in their hands and wonder what they’re doing with their lives before showing, like, any of the Spartan CGI. Most shows would study how people in armor fought before showing people in armor fighting. But like “Barbarella” before it, “Halo” explains this all away with the hand wave that none of it matters because it’s the future in sexy space, except “Halo” isn’t sexy and lacks any sense of irony.

Look no further than “The Mandalorian” for a show that creates consequential aliens and choreography built around how things like armor and gravity and limbs work without suddenly becoming strangely elastic. Yet “Halo” is clearly self-conscious about not being “The Mandalorian” because both shows’ characters wear helmets, which is like me being self-conscious about not being Henry Cavill cause we’re both known for playing The Witcher. I even played the DLC; he told reporters he hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

Master Chief is even unmasked in the first episode, something that’s never been done in the “Halo” games. They utterly land the shock of the moment when it’s revealed that it’s not Kevin Costner inside. It’s a good thing “Halo” strives so hard to differentiate itself from “The Mandalorian”. How else is the audience supposed to tell two helmets apart?

Sure, you could say its understanding of sci-fi is different, that its filmmaking is far more 90s network TV, an impressive choice considering the first game didn’t even come out until 2001. You could be upset its design aesthetic evokes “The Matrix” sequels without the cool leather daddy fashion sense. You could criticize its stop-and-start pace, the fact that everything feels too much like a set, its over-reliance on subpar CGI, and its inability to fuse close-ups and wide shots into cogent sequences, as well as its complete lack of humor, plus bad choreography.

You could rail about how every piece of character development needs to be spoken out loud by each character and acknowledged out loud by another. You could wonder what they were thinking by oscillating between 10% flashes of dismemberment of children and 90% totally bloodless PG action. You could compare its awkwardly inserted brief POV shots to “Doom” 2005 starring Karl Urban and wonder why this doesn’t star Karl Urban or have as good CGI as “Doom” 2005 which was made in 2005 with CGI from 2005. But if you didn’t make jokes while doing it, then you’d just be some jerk.

I like “Halo” because it’s clearly influenced by Paul Verhoeven’s visuals, ideas, and the themes behind them, evoking the anti-fascist concepts behind “Starship Troopers” and “RoboCop.” I also like it because it only half-knows how to communicate them before turning into a Paul W. S. Anderson movie like “Resident Evil” or “Resident Evil.”

The wider lore of “Halo” holds some exciting sci-fi possibilities that are hinted here, while the execution of the series keeps alive the enduring promise of making them super lame.

Do I like “Halo?” Damn straight. If forced to make a choice, would I rather we get a second season of “Earth 2?” Of course, but Clancy Brown hasn’t come knocking.

At the end of the day, “Halo” could be “Con Air” if it had the Nicolas Cage film’s capacity for abstraction, which is the first time anyone’s ever said that phrase. But it also could have dipped into being “Battlefield Earth,” and I’ve never seen anything before that veered so close to such disaster and yet pulled away so surely. It’s like watching a man almost fall into a volcano, but then defy the odds and clamber away safely. Maybe there’s nothing special about that man, but you can be sure as shit I’m gonna watch if he tries it again. In the immortal words of Thane, “Entropy wins. Entropy always wins.” But it also has a weekly audience.

You can watch “Halo” on Paramount+. New episodes arrive weekly and it’s already been renewed for a second season; I was worried there for a minute.

If you enjoy fever dream stream of consciousness brought back from the abyss of watching this brilliant mess, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it, but you know, also the regular stuff, too.

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