For those who haven’t been keeping track of the on-again, off-again idea of a live-action Halo feature film, the new web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn may seem to have come right out of left field. But make no mistake: Microsoft isn’t developing a live-action, 9o-minute film following the Master Chief, among other key characters, just to make the launch of Halo 4 this November that much more grandiose.
The truth is, the time has never been better to push a Halo movie from dream to reality, with recent developments in the realm of young adult novels – and, subsequently, the proven success of those adaptations. The respective fan bases may not see eye-to-eye on science-fiction, but a Halo feature film – if done correctly – may have The Hunger Games to thank.
It may come as somewhat of a surprise that one of the most well-known and universally praised game franchises is having trouble finding a Hollywood studio ready to adapt it to the screen, but the road has been anything but smooth up to this point. The cost of such an undertaking led Fox and Universal to partner together (not a recipe for avoiding speed bumps) in trying to get a Peter Jackson-produced Halo feature film bankrolled in 2010. Fans may still lament the loss of a Halo film produced by the mind behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and directed by District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp. With Blomkamp now onto the higher-budget Elysium, that film’s science fiction action will remain a strong example of what might have been (especially given some intriguing similarities to the Halo franchise).
Nevertheless, the expenses outweighed the potential in the eyes of both studios. After the legal and financial mess was settled, one studio seemed to still be interested in the obvious potential of a feature-film set within the video game universe already responsible for close to $2 billion in sales. That foolhardy company was none other than DreamWorks Studios, with Steven Spielberg, a self-professed fan of video game fiction implied as possible executive producer.
A UNSC Pelican Dropship from Niell Blomkamp’s 2007 Test Short
Their solution for avoiding the mess of turning a video game into a feature film without a budget escalating out of control? Turn to the Halo novels for source material, not one of the existing games. The novels, written by American novelist Eric Nylund (well enough to earn a job at Microsoft Games Studios, we might add) made the New York Times Bestseller list their stomping grounds, exploring the details and personal stories of the warriors largely omitted from the action-heavy realm of the games.
The then-reported plan was to use the first novel, ‘Halo: The Fall of Reach’ as a launching point for a trilogy, carving out a separate space from the games – similar to the novels themselves. The only problem? The novel in question follows the Master Chief, John-117, and fellow Spartan IIs long before the alien war and iconic armor that many still see as the heart of what makes Halo popular. Did we mention the fact that these soldiers are kidnapped from their parents and thrust into combat from the age of six?
Touchy subject matter if there ever was, which inevitably raised some doubts about the mass appeal that a possible film adaptation would have. Of course, that was back in 2010, before Suzanne Collins and a book series known as The Hunger Games were on the tongues of anyone with a computer or Kindle. While movie-goers and readers the world over made a tale of teenage violence and will to survive against imposing authority a sales juggernaut, you can bet Microsoft was paying close attention. Not just to see how science-fiction was once again inching farther into the mainstream, but to what this could mean for their most profitable first-party IP.
‘Halo: Reach’ – Bungie’s last game, based on the events detailed in the novel
To truly understand what an alien-shooting space marine has in common with teens being forced into brutal combat against a backdrop of war, insurrection, young romance and the essence of human identity, a little context is needed. First and foremost, these are the exact same subjects which lie at the very heart of Halo. Following a group of young planetary colonists hand-picked for genetic modification and military training, ‘The Fall of Reach’ tells the tale of John-117 and his fellow recruits as they make their way from age six, to age fifteen then adulthood, facing the arrival of the Covenant on humanity’s doorstep.
The skill with which the potentially offensive material was executed in the book – and those that followed – meant the announcement of DreamWorks possibly adapting the novel to the big screen was met with immediate enthusiasm among fans, along with some confusion among the uninitiated. And yet, momentum has still been elusive.
So when Microsoft witnessed the sudden explosion of interest in a futuristic book series exploring child-on-child violence and military training, they had some serious questions to ask. It seems that rather than using the $660 million gross of The Hunger Games film as proof in studio negotiations, those at Microsoft decided to prove a point, and get things off the ground themselves. Enter Forward Unto Dawn.
Microsoft has never relaxed its stance that a Halo feature film or mini-series will eventually happen, on the condition that they had control over its quality and direction. If that meant self-financing – shouldering the costs in anticipation of the greater profits that would, let’s be honest, be as close to a guarantee as possible – Microsoft would foot the bill. Of course, having a sample of what a Halo film or series could ultimately achieve, and the direction Microsoft would be willing to allow a director or studio to take, would go a long ways farther than just promises.
Since major Hollywood studios continue to misunderstand why certain video game properties resonate with audiences over others (read: DOOM, BloodRayne) the developers themselves have begun stepping up. Microsoft may have scared off studios by demanding control over their property on the big screen (and who could blame them), but Hollywood’s track record was the exact reason that Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft formed their own studio. And the decision is already paying off, with Michael Fassbender attached to appear in and produce the film.
Fans of Halo will already be aware of the company’s tendency to go all-out in advertising the more recent releases, garnering attention with their highly-polished live-action TV spots along with international accolades. While the shorter advertisements were required to focus on the atmosphere and action found in the game’s campaign, such a ‘style over substance’ approach wouldn’t fly for longer features – something Microsoft has shown they’re aware of. The visuals are impressive, but a two-hour long film based around nothing but gunfights and explosions wouldn’t be likely to attract any ambitious or well-respected directors (notice the lack of any Michael Bay reference).
If Microsoft and DreamWorks have hopes for a strong, compelling and critically-praised film that kicks off an entire franchise, a serious amount of story and talent will be required. But could a Halo film built on a morally troubling tale of lost youth be meshed with the pyrotechnics and action that fans would have every right to expect? There’s only one way to find out.
Initially announced as a companion web series for Halo 4, Forward Unto Dawn has since been revealed to be not just the first live-action extended Halo film produced, but Microsoft’s “largest investment” in filmmaking to date. The first teaser trailer showed that a real-world replica of Master Chief’s Mjolnir armor still looks just as cool as one would hope, but not much else. Any doubts about the quality, scale, or intentions of Microsoft and 343 Industries were eradicated with the arrival of the full theatrical trailer for Forward Unto Dawn.
Sporting a host of young actors and actresses, like Tom Green (Dance Academy) and Anna Popplewell (The Chronicles of Narnia) the team is obviously not relying on the Halo name to win attention, even turning to sizable actor Daniel Cudmore (The Twilight Saga, X-Men 3: The Last Stand) for the faceless Goliath in green.
The story follows Thomas Lasky (Green), a young recruit at Corbulo Military Academy – the place where the best and brightest of the United Nations Space Command send their children to one day command troops against the ever-present threat of insurrection. Rivalries (and romance) soon follow, with Lasky being told that he has been born to lead others, and must grow into that responsibility regardless of his own misgivings. Sound familiar? Trained under the tutelage of General Black – played by sci-fi regular Mike Dopud (Caprica, SGU Stargate Universe) – Lasky’s personal struggle gets put on hold when the alien forces of the invading Covenant arrive at the school intent on a fight. The Master Chief is happy to oblige, but the story and new characters are every bit as intriguing as the chance to see the Chief in action.
See for yourselves:
It would be a bit of a stretch to say that with Forward Unto Dawn, Microsoft is releasing a 90-minute proof of concept to potential Hollywood studios and investors. But even if the web series is being developed to begin and end as a companion to Halo 4, it is abundantly clear that the series is a precursor to something greater. Garnering attention as a possible successor to The Hunger Games films – besides, you know, being a Halo movie – is unavoidable, and more than a surface goal. If the costume and set design of the web series looks familiar, it should: Microsoft is using the same design firm, Legacy Effects.
The official trailer tells the story of young recruits being forged into warriors alongside the Master Chief, but the story details from 343 Industries, the trustees of the brand, emphasize just how closely the series will resemble the origins of the Chief himself. Fans of the Halo novels were quick to promote the idea of building any potential film franchise around The Fall of Reach, so it’s extremely telling that the basic plot and appearance of Forward Unto Dawn mirror the origin story of John-117 that DreamWorks initially favored. If the public reaction to the series is overwhelmingly positive, Microsoft would have some fairly compelling data to prove just how profitable a Halo franchise could be.
Tom Green as Cadet Thomas Lasky
The series is helmed by Stewart Hendler (H+, Sorority Row) and written by Aaron and Todd Helbing (Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Mortal Kombat: Legacy), all hand-picked by 343 and executive producers Josh Feldman and Lydia Antonini for their ability to produce strong content in a short, serialized form. The only criteria was that each pitch had to fit with the overall spirit and direction of the upcoming Halo 4, with the Helbings’ original story treatment specifically meant to hearken back to the Master Chief’s own beginnings. The choice to go with that story pitch was no coincidence, as Forward Unto Dawn promises to deal with some heavy philosophical issues both on and off the battlefield.
A series of video previews have been released promising a strong tone and noticeably dark undercurrent, hopefully designed to get the most of its teen cast. Have a look at one such preview, entitled ‘Enlist':
Taking on a multi-picture video game franchise is a big bet, especially if “doing it right” means following a teenage Chief, before the armor and gravelly voice that defined him are able to appear in the film, let alone the marketing. But those aren’t the only marketable aspects the origin story of the Chief and his fellow soldiers would contain.
If we’ve learned anything from The Twilight Saga (hard to admit, we know) it’s that female audiences aren’t just a market that should be catered to, but more than capable of generating blockbuster revenues. A vampire drama built around a young woman protagonist and two heartthrobs wasn’t the kind of thing that was expected to fill meeting rooms at Comic-Con, but times have changed.
Marvel certainly noticed the power of female moviegoers, as evidenced by the marketing for Thor, Captain America, and even the Iron Man series featuring the male stars scantily clad. A shirtless Chris Evans or Hemsworth wasn’t needed to convince comic book fans that they were right for the role, but certainly helped create some overlap with traditionally more ‘female’ genres of film.
We’ve long asked how much more money Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ could have generated had the films been actively marketed to women, but the potential is undeniable.
For those women who just couldn’t identify with Twilight‘s Bella Swan (or for mothers who did little to encourage the type of submissive role taken by the character among more powerful figures) the answer to their troubles came in the form of The Hunger Games‘ heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Stronger than her male competition and refusing to bend her will – unless it’s the intelligent thing to do – Katniss was the kind of exceptional female role model that many were more than happy to get behind. As for the marketing dollars, well, keep your eyes peeled for how many bows and braids will pop up this Halloween.
It may surprise some only familiar with the Halo games, but the sci-fi franchise has both of the above factors, capable of fueling successful marketing to men and women of all age groups. We don’t just mean the wealth of fifteen year old, genetically-enhanced, musclebound recruits whose bodies more closely resemble twenty-somethings carved from granite (ahem), but the wealth of strong female characters as well. Take Linda, the stoic, humble, and most deadly sniper in the series as a whole, or Kelly, the fastest and most confident Spartan II to date. Don’t even get us started on Cortana.
A poster for Halo: The Movie would be enough to pull in the gaming crowd, regardless of how much the story was reworked to stand apart from the game series, but the hint of young love between John and Linda, or a collection of young male ‘heartthrobs’ to fill the roles of Fred, Sam, Kurt, and even John himself would pull in a younger female audience as well. The overall story and performances will be the most significant ingredient for success, but the potential audience needs to be big enough for Microsoft and DreamWorks to take the plunge.
Budding romance, teenage characters carrying a plot built on war and alien invaders, and violence being committed by young soldiers against young soldiers are all going to be on display with Forward Unto Dawn. If the cast and crew can pull it off, then the possibility of it being done on an even grander scale, with a much larger budget is higher than ever. That’s all speculation at this point, but don’t think Microsoft isn’t looking at the big picture.
Do you think Microsoft is making a wise move by putting up their own money instead of waiting for an outside studio to buy in? Is a film franchise based around the extended fiction, and not the games themselves a good way of keeping both newcomers and fans on the edge of their seats, or the wrong way to go? Sound off in the comments.
For now, we’ll look forward to seeing what 343 has in mind for extending the Halo name into other media, be it film or television. Who knows: if some of the actors manage to shine, we may be seeing their faces again.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn will be released via Halo Waypoint and Machinima starting October 5, leading up to the launch of Halo 4 on November 6, 2012.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.