It’s easy, probably too easy, to pass off the Halo 4 web series Forward Unto Dawn as merely a piece of marketing. That’s what it is, but it’s also a pretty good expansion of the Halo universe. I only caught the first of five parts when it debuted online because I honestly wasn’t interested in seeing it in 15 minutes chunks meted out every week, but watching it all in full definition Blu-ray end to end is easily the best way to enjoy the saga and an enjoyable morsel of Halo legacy.
Taking place several decades before the gunplay of the Halo games, we follow the training of Thomas Lasky, future commanding officer of the UNSC Infinity, and his fellow cadets at the Corbulo Academy of Military Sciences. At this point in Halo history, these recruits are honing their skills to battle a variety of insurgents who seem to have a case against the mighty forces of Earth. The show plays with the validity of the rebels’ plight through Lasky, who’s sympathetic having lost his brother to the conflict. In the opening shots of the series, a headstrong and reckless Lasky causes his squadron to fail a deathmatch-style exercise. Lasky’s performance is compared to his mother’s, a legendary officer, and he ends up getting his brow beat by not only his superior officers, but his fellow trainees as well. Seeking to redeem himself, he leads his squad to success through a sly Kobyashi Maru-style victory, only to fall victim to his allergy to cryo sleep. Of course, being able to be suspended and quickly revived from space travel is a a critical component to a soldier’s career, so he’s granted a legitimate discharge. Before he can make his decision to stay or leave the academy, their planet comes under fire by some strange, new alien foes – the Covenant. SPARTANs, including a one Master Chief, are deployed to rescue Lasky and his fellow recruits, the only survivors of the attack.
The show feels a lot like Halo without diving too much for the series’ traditions. It reminds me of an old FOX show called Space: Above and Beyond which was also about future soldiers fighting a new, alien villain, and I’d like to see more of this. It’s beautifully shot and looks more like Gears than Halo at times although it draws directly from the previous live-action work that lead up to the releases of Halo 3 and Halo Reach. The production’s smaller budget rears its head when it comes to some of the special effects or the set designs, but this isn’t some Blomkamp Halo movie. The first half of the film, dealing with the cadets and their academy life, is pretty interesting, but features little rising action. It’s only when the planet is suddenly under siege that the pace picks up. The Master Chief is here, but it’s a little disorienting as another voice actor is used and he has a huge, dopey ‘117’ on his armor when he’s clearly a different model than his fellow SPARTANs. He feels like another character when, at one point, he rushes to the cadets he’s protecting, who are now gushing over the loss of their prettiest member to Covenant fire, and asks for ammo with the tact of a friend bumming for cigarettes. The series’ back half also feels weird as the show’s established look gets injected with a bunch of neon greens, purples, and blues as they escape the Covenant onslaught. It’s not really the producers’ fault, but it’s a little odd.
This is a Blu-ray release after all, so where would we be without a smattering of extras? Bundled on Forward Unto Dawn is an hour of mini-documentaries and commentaries that may actually dwarf the enjoyment of watching the series. When I interviewed the executive producers of the show a few months back, they made the case that they were following 343’s instructions closely to make this feel like a legitimate extension of Halo, but when you see the amount of work put into making this work, you’ll buy it. 343 had a heavy hand in making sure the story and aesthetic were right while the actors went through a week of boot camp-style instruction and drills to prepare for their roles. You’ll also see how they built all the armor (it’s mostly foam!) and the magic of the world’s only working Warthog, built by Weta for the Blomkamp shorts for Halo 3. Seriously, I want one. It’s super cool to see some of this stuff come to life, which is why I’d probably also watch a show about people fabricating stuff based on video games. Hint, hint, Discovery Channel or whoever.
As a show, I enjoyed Forward Unto Dawn. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s still a very high quality addition to the universe despite being uneven at times. This Blu-ray Special Edition features an unnecessary, in-universe documentary opener that introduces the characters, something that would’ve been better served as an out-of-universe extra, as well as some extended scenes I didn’t see in the web series that expand on its connection to Halo 4. The extras are probably worth the price of admission alone if you enjoyed the series. I find it hard to believe that people not familiar with Halo would dig this, but fans definitely will.