Halo FUD: Becoming the hunted

By Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

'Forward Unto Dawn' goes beyond the Master Chief's story to shed more light on the Halo universe. Photo / Supplied
'Forward Unto Dawn' goes beyond the Master Chief's story to shed more light on the Halo universe. Photo / Supplied

A feature-length, live-action film continues to be but a dream for Halo fans, however they can go feet-first into the sci-fi world with a series of digital shorts that 343 Industries hoped would attract even more followers before the release of Halo 4.

Set five hundred years in the future during humanity's war against alienkind, Forward Unto Dawn follows a group of United Nations Space Command recruits as they prepare for life - and death - on the front lines.

"Forward Unto Dawn started as an idea, almost like an experiment that we weren't sure how it would turn out," 343 Industries' creative director Josh Holmes told nzherald.co.nz.

"One of the goals was to hopefully reach a broader audience of people that would then get exposed to the universe, as well as to some of the concepts of play within Halo."

The series is an addition to the growing library of supporting media including books, graphic novels, and animated shorts.

Part 5 - [watch]

"Controlled burst," barks Master Chief as he figuratively tears a page out of the assault rifle guide book. "No spray and pray."

The surviving recruits are fleeing their military academy, now a glowing husk, and their Warthog off-road vehicle has been ambushed by Covenant attackers.

The worst of them, two oversized Hunters, create major problems for the squad. Even the Chief's best efforts can bring down only one of them before his ammunition is entirely spent.

Being that Hunters are major pains in the neck in the games, they have been fairly represented on screen. Titanic creatures made of a mass of living worms and interlocking armour, and armed with cannons that shoot Voldemortesque blasts of green evil, the live-action Hunters make their mark on this series finale with terrifying authority.

As the Chief leads the survivors to their extraction point, Lasky halts. He sees his face reflective in a smooth surface. It's a fleeting scene that is reminiscent of all those moments where Lasky saw his brother's face on a video screen. Now the brave man staring back at him is himself.

His decision, made in the face of a violent, green death, sets the scene for a very tense conclusion.

As a series that was experimental in nature, Forward Unto Dawn could have been desperately ho-hum, or even good... for what it was. As it turned out, the series has been good by sci-fi standards all-round. There was some cheesy dialogue, some predictability, and perhaps too much emotion at times, but Forward Unto Dawn was ultimately a story well told.

Part 4 - [watch]

I've made the claim before that Halo is the Star Wars for a new generation, though reports of a new movie in 2015 and the buyout of LucasFilm by Disney might make that viewpoint unacceptable to some.

Certainly, the action in the fourth episode of Forward Unto Dawn has shades of some sci-fi greats. As the surviving recruits try to escape the ruins of their military academy in the midst of a Covenant attack, the invading force is led by an Elite with active camo abilities which render him invisible. Think Predator.

The young soldiers try in vain to break into a secure weapons cache to arm themselves against the advancing Elite, and it is none other than the Master Chief who turns up to save the day. He dispatches the menacing space lizard with superlative ease, then rips the door off the weapons cache without any sign of effort. The students take his advice to get equipped and get out, but they're not sure what to make of their seven-foot saviour. One of them even says Master Chief is a robot. Think Robocop.

Of course the Chief is part man, just like Alex Murphy.

The on-point portrayal by Daniel Cudmore (who appeared as Colossus during the X-Men's cinematic run last decade) certainly helps the mechanical impression along, and while the Chief's voice isn't quite up to Steve Downes' in-game efforts, it's more than good enough for the job.

Part 3 - [watch]

About midway through the third episode of Forward Unto Dawn, the hero and heroine join up for a heart-to-heart.

"Apparently I'm allergic to war," deadpans the hero.

The cliffhanger that closed-off episode two had Thomas Lasky, the little recruit that could, lead his team to a strategic victory over a rival squad in a battle of Capture the Flag, only for him to be felled by a mystery affliction.

We learn in this episode that it's an adverse reaction to the drugs used in his body for cryogenic sleep, and since the space marines of the 26th century rely on that technology for the long, long journeys through the cosmos, a severe allergy is grounds for a medical release. It's time to choose: stay or go.

Chyler Silva, the heroine, finds Lasky reading over the release form. She says she'll miss him. They kiss. Then all hell breaks loose. But first, let us rewind.

Lasky and his squadmates have been watching another video taken, apparently without permission, from the Office of Naval Intelligence. It depicts a small force of innies working in tandem with a soldier the likes of whom the young trainees have never seen before. He, or she, is at least "two feet" taller than anyone else, clad head to toe in armour beyond state of the art, and there in the visor is the reflection of a bipedal alien with a dual-pronged energy sword.

Fast forward: All hell, breaking loose. Forget about the innies, because the real baddies are here. The recruits have relatives in the military top brass, and as they look on with disappointment and despair, one of them breaks ranks and uses family ties to bully a marine into giving access to the only escape vehicle within reach.

Lasky and the team stay put, his choice having been made for him.

This episode clocks in at just over 16 minutes, and other than a meandering wander through the memory banks courtesy of another cameo from Lasky's (now confirmed) dead brother, it zips along at a tremendous pace. There are fewer elements of gameplay in episode three, but it's the one most suited to the Halo universe so far.

For viewers unfamiliar with the background to the first Halo game, there is a tantalising promise of the fireworks to come. Also, with an eye on the future and Halo 4, we get a feel for the shadow of rampancy falling over the Master Chief's companion, Cortana.

This episode has more depth than the first two combined, and even the lightest of moments is packed with gravitas. After viewing the ONI video, members of Lasky's squad discuss the footage over lunch. Silva, who has a real bug up her behind about the innies, can't get over the idea of a UNSC trooper apparently fighting on their side. A teammate, Sullivan, cuts through the solemnity - but really, he's adding to it - by mimicking the mystery soldier's actions with an invisible assault rifle and "pow-pow-pow" effects. It reminds us that these are just kids, after all.

Well played.

Part 2 - [watch]

School's a tough ride for most students, and more so when there are matters of intergalactic defence to consider. As one military academy recruit lies to his parents via video link about his less than stellar combat score, our hero Lasky has to endure jab after jab about what a rubbish soldier he is compared to his apparently ill-fated brother, an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper.

(If you're unfamiliar with the ODSTs, think of them as a kind of 26th-century Special Air Service.)

After one trolling comment too many from his chief rival in the squad, a stern-faced kid named Vickers, Lasky unleashes his inner beast and beats his teammate's face into mincemeat. His superiors approve of this because it shows there's a soldier in there after all.

The dialogue is improved over episode one, with few words wasted; "I just hear the drumbeat of endless war, and that doesn't make me an innie lover," Lasky says to Silva. "Tell me how wrong I am."

Silva can't. Better yet, she doesn't. What she does know is that the war won't end without a fight, so after a pregnant pause she appeals to his leadership instincts.

So it is that Lasky asks for, and receives, command when his squad enters a game of Capture the Flag. It's a clever staging of a real Halo multiplayer classic, and it ends with a minor cliffhanger.

If that's not enough, there's an interesting subplot going on involving some footage of what appears to be a military operation-cum-massacre, apparently leaked, hacked, or extracted from the Office of Naval Intelligence. What's going on there? The plot thickens.

So far, so good. Roll on, episode three.

Part 1 - [watch]

As an introduction to the wider Halo universe, this episode is mostly made up of hits - but there are some misses too. Crucially, it's in the dialogue. Some lines are brilliant and fan-friendly, while others sound like they have been salvaged from the Starship Troopers cutting room floor.

The eyes roll the most during a post-skirmish conversation between Lasky and Silva (Anna Popplewell, The Chronicles of Narnia) about their motivations for war. At this stage in the story, the UNSC troops are dealing mainly with human insurrectionists, prior to the war against the alien Covenant, and the two cadets can't agree on whether the "innies" are really the bad guys.

Lasky, who is clearly struggling with his place in the chain of command, has to wear insults from his squadmates - one of whom calls him an "innie lover" while another lambasts him for adversely affecting his record: "My combat score sucked because of you."

That's a cool touch which recognises the post-match bickering which takes place between teammates after multiplayer games on Xbox Live. Achievement unlocked, 343. That's very cool. What follows, not so much.

Silva comes to Lasky and tries to convince him that the UNSC isn't the enemy. The young man wishes he could believe that, so Silva reaches into the war movie cliche bucket and pulls this one out: "Yeah, well, at least I believe in something these days."

Never mind. Here's where the first episode wins:

- It's dripping in history, both in the Halo universe and all the way back to the Roman empire; layer upon layer of geeky goodness.
- It looks pretty big budget, but it clearly isn't; rather, it's a triumph for innovative thinking and smell-of-an-oily-rag stuff.
- It goes as far, if not further, than other stories in the Halo universe to remind observers that there's more to defending humanity than getting pumped full of performance enhancers and donning an ultra-powerful exoskeleton.

As an introduction, not too bad at all.

* Forward Unto Dawn, starring Dance Academy actor Tom Green as Lasky and featuring X-Men 2's Daniel Cudmore as the Master Chief, goes live each week at Machinima Prime and Halo Waypoint.

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