Thursday, October 15, 2015


Back when 343 Industries was finishing up work on Halo 4 I got a chance to sit down and watch their live-action web mini-series, "Forward unto Dawn".  At the time I was mildly entertained, but put little thought into it beyond that.  However, I recently got around to watching the entire thing as a single hour-and-a-half film and found it still holds up surprisingly well.  I should stress this is coming from someone who has read their fair share of military sci-fi.  Names like Heinlein, Card, Weber, Scalzi, Haldeman and Forstchen are familiar to me and (while I've only played the first two Halo games) I've read the first four Halo novels from cover to cover.  So, what makes Forward unto Dawn special?'s difficult to point to anything in particular, rather, what makes it great is a culmination of spot-on casting, deftly applied cinematography, and a unconventional script.

Starting with the last one first, the normal way to approach a movie adaptation of Halo would be to cast Master Chief in the lead role with a Covenant Elite or Brute as the primary antagonist.  Some Precursor artifact would be the token McGuffin and the context of the war would be established via an opening montage.  Instead, we see events as a flashback through the eyes of military cadets being trained to fight a nebulous group of insurrectionists.  For the sake of brevity some of the cast fall into stereotypical roles such as the book-smart Asian, aggressive red-head, and stuck-up blonde.  On the other hand the characters with more screen time, such as Lasky and Silva, are much more three dimensional.  There's also a lot of buildup before the action really starts, and Master Chief himself doesn't show up until well past the halfway mark which (all things considered) is kind of a bold move.

The visuals are also surprisingly good.  Because of budget constraints the director couldn't rely on CGI special effects all that much.  Props are also authentic looking thanks to work done be WETA back when this was going to be a Peter Jackson production.  The Covenant are kept mostly hidden or shown only briefly which makes them far more threatening than their cartoony presentation in the games.  That said, there's still a lot interesting use of color pallets.  I especially liked the juxtaposition of the muted academic environments with vibrant battle scenes.  The image of a shimmering warthog racing down a densely forested road in the pitch-black night speaks to the quality of the lighting as well.

In order to emphasize the size difference between SPARTAN-IIs and ordinary people, actors of small and slender build were deliberately selected for Hastati squad to contrast with the actor portraying Master Chief - who stands over six feet eight inches tall (203cm).  Age, also a key theme, is well represented in the casting.  The cadets all look appropriately young which help setup the ending surprise that their rescuers aren't any older than them.  Performances are generally good, with the one noteworthy standout being Cadmon (Lasky's older brother).  Of course April Orenski's look of utter and complete mental exhaustion shortly before the credits role is priceless too.

When you consider all the different movie adaptations of video games that have been made over years (and how poorly most of them have been) Forward unto Dawn is refreshingly well done.  I would by no means call it a modern cinema classic, but when you consider the budget, original source material and the simple fact that it was released for free then this film is definitely worthy.


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