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"Halo: Legends": Halo, I Must Be Going

by on February 24, 2010

I’ve never actually played a Halo game despite owning an Xbox: a fact that, given the number of Halo boxes moved by Microsoft over the years, leaves me with the vaguely discomfiting sense that I am in violation of some law or customer agreement or something. This hunched sense of guilt has never been enough to actually get me to try one of those ubiquitous things, but being as I was recently tasked with reviewing the animated spinoff property Halo: Legends I decided it would be a good idea to actually get some hands-on, first-person (shooter) experience with the franchise before taking up my assignment. Know thy enemy, one might say, in keeping with the whole militaristic ethos of the thing.

As it happens, all the rental copies of Halo 3 were checked out from Blockbuster when I visited, so I picked up Halo 3 ODST instead and spent a few days fiddling around with it. Afterward I read the Gamespot review, and it told me I’d been playing one of the most heart-in-mouth, funny-feeling-in-trousers games to come out in recent years, and a real cherry perched at the top of the incredible chocolate-fudge sundae that is the Halo franchise. I found this odd, because I thought I’d been playing an extremely repetitive and at times absolutely infuriating electronic version on the old carnival sideshow shooting gallery, with the twist that in this variation the ducks shoot back. Moreover, the experience turned out to be utterly useless for research purposes. I got a pre-game story summary at the top, and there was something resembling a plot to string the arena events together, but the whole thing was so obscure and unnecessary that I had to consult Wikipedia anyway, and so could have saved myself $10 out of pocket and ten hours of stress that probably took me two days closer to a heart attack than I would have otherwise. I couldn’t even finish the game before the controller slipped from my nerveless fingers.

It takes real art to make something that is both boring and stressful.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I bothered to do “research” at all. If Halo 3 EIEIO is at all indicative of the franchise, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a “backstory,” let alone a backstory that, Wikipedia assures me, has been compared to Star Wars, the Aenid, and the Holy Bible/Koran/Annals of Confucius all rolled into one in terms of its cultural impact. (Methinks the author of that Wikipassage needs to get out and meet a girl.) When you get right down to it, the game only asks you to superimpose one blob of colored light over another blob of colored light and then tap a trigger until the second blob of colored light stops blinking; rinse and repeat. At this level of abstraction, Halo 3 ROTFL (at least) is even less complicated than Pac Man. The latter also wound up with a backstory, but I don’t see Wikipedia arguing that Pac-Man: The Animated Series renders Casablanca, Hamlet, and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus superfluous.

My point, I suppose, insofar as I have one, is that Halo: Legends is not for me. Whether it is for you will probably depend upon how extreme a case of Halotisis you have come down with.

This is an anthology collection, much in the vein of The Animatrix or Gotham Knight. It is eight short films, each ranging from ten to twenty minutes in length, showcasing someone or something doing something-or-other to some other someone or something out of the Halo universe. Because I am so woefully uninformed about such things, I can only judge these shorts on their own intrinsic merits.

The program opens with two ten-minute shorts, “Origins I” and “Origins II.” I don’t know why they are broken up this way, instead of being compacted into one twenty-minute film, because they are stylistically and conceptually seamless. The AI-being Cortana narrates both as extended, chronological accounts of the Halo universe’s backstory, describing the Forerunners and the Flood and the Covenant, and the spread of humanity into the galaxy. Basically it’s a very dry and rather screedy history lesson—the persistence of war preys upon Cortana the way it preys upon old, gray-haired granny-hippies—illustrated by some occasionally pretty pictures. I’ve no good idea why the producers chose to include this sodden, undramatic pseudo-documentary. I suspect someone figured that noobs like me would actually enjoy a 20-minute orientation seminar (!!!!!), while Halo-heads would thrill at seeing the backstory actually illustrated. But the whole thing winds up being tedious and unnecessary. To understand the shorts that follow, you mostly just have to grasp the thought Grrarrrr! Shoot the aliens!; and those who know the backstory will probably find it about as exciting as a grade-school textbook summary of the American Revolution.

This intro is followed by “The Duel,” which is the one short that will really baffle the noobs. It features only aliens, and centers on one particular dino-dude called “Arbiter.” This is probably the one that will impress Halo fans the most, as it is quite stylish, and I guess it’s meant to explain something important in this character’s background. Intra-alien politics are also somehow implicated, but whatever is going on there wasn’t included in Cortana’s syllabus—I certainly hope it won’t be on any final exams—and it just makes “Origins” look even more pointlessly sterile.

Like “The Duel,” “Homecoming” appears to provide backstory on a couple of soldiers. I gather that the key players are Spartans, and it describes what happened back in the past when some of them tried to bust out of the research place where they were being trained and engineered. I have no idea what I should treat as a spoiler and what I shouldn’t, so I’ll say nothing about what they find when they get home, except that it raises so many gobsmackingly obvious but glaringly unanswered questions that it seriously distracts from the rest of the short. For what it is worth, these bits are intercut as flashbacks during a running battle that is moderately exciting, if nothing very special.

“Prototype,” meanwhile, is giant-robot action mixed in with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of personal angst. Lots and lots of it. Just great steaming gobs of it. You can hardly see the action for all the angst. Just when you think that a battle is about to get good, another angst-bomb goes off. Basically, this is the kind of story that opens with a long scene that explains why a certain character makes squishy “angst” noises when he walks, then has him being all angsty in the present, and finally, just before it shows how he’s going to try to redeem himself from the incident that gave him all the angst, it replays the entire long scene that we already saw so that we won’t misunderstand why angst-boy is so eaten up with angst that he’s going to blow up half of a planet because he can’t deal with the angst any more.

Fortunately, there are two extremely good shorts on this collection. “Odd Man Out” delightfully mixes pratfall comedy with over-the-top action in a way that is absolutely winning. There is no plot, only incident: Spartan 1337 falls out of a transport onto an obscure planet, where he meets a family of castaways and has to battle an incredibly strong but woefully stupid Covenant supersoldier. Spartan 1337 has a terrific personality—strutting machismo that is 80% earned and 20% Wile E. Coyote-style boastfulness—and he is ably abetted and thwarted by a rambunctious cast of eccentrics. It is so good that no one could or should care whether it is part of some larger franchise; it’s the kind of “episode” that makes you want to see a series with the same sense of fun and excitement.

“The Babysitter,” on the other hand, is a taut piece of dramatic filmmaking. A team of ODST soldiers and one Spartan are sent on an assassination mission; one of the ODST men deeply resents the Spartan, and his temper isn’t improved when this silent hero saves his life multiple times. The story deftly sketches the building resentments and interpersonal tensions without ever becoming blatant about it, and resolves them in a way that is very natural and very moving without being manipulative.

Both of these shorts work so well because they do not presuppose anything from the Halo universe; they are tightly written and completely self-contained stories that stand on their own. The final short, “The Package,” is the complete opposite, a tedious lot of fighting whose reveals and twists make no sense unless you are steeped in the games and their backstory. (What is “the package”? I assume Halo players will gasp when it is revealed; petulantly, I wished it had been a sled named “Rosebud,” as I’m sure that kind of obscure twist would have pissed off the average Halo player as much as the actual reveal pissed off me.) It stands as an exemplar for this entire collection: a richly produced cinematic “cut scene” plainly intended to thrill a core audience while making no concession whatsoever to anyone outside it. That doesn’t make it bad; it only leaves me inclined to treat it with the same cold indifference with which it treats me.

I think this kind of approach is a mistake. Perhaps the producers arrogantly feel that the Halo fan base is big enough to make this kind of product a paying proposition, and that they can afford to flip a giant middle finger at everyone else while flattering their already-captive customer base. But it’s a limiting attitude, and not just financially. A really good universe is one with multiple openings, the kind of place where any newbie can enter anywhere and have a pretty good time. (Like, as I said above, with “Odd Man Out” and “The Babysitter.”) And universes become richer places not by recursively and obsessively digging into established tropes but by adding new ones. But Halo: Legends winds up just feeling like a sweaty, sticky exercise in self-gratification.

In keeping with the generally risk-averse stories, the animation and design work is mostly conservative as well. The two visual standouts are “The Duel,” which looks like it was photographed through heavy, light-distorting glass, and “The Package,” which is pure CGI work. All the others have the sheen of a high-quality television series with good explosions, but they cannot match something like Afro Samurai for sheer bravura artistry. Music is suitably percussive without being memorable, and the voice actors get the job done.

The DVD comes with a commentary track with directors Frank O’Connor and Joseph Chou. Both gentlemen are pleasingly low-key, and neither one descends into the usual, irritating “Isn’t that awesome; didn’t everyone do just such an incredible job on this” style of self-congratulation. Halo fans will definitely want to listen to this track because the comments are very informative; but newcomers (like me) may become even more irritated by a discussion that clearly shows its producers intended to make a product totally inaccessible to anyone not already part of the cult.

Halo: Legends is for the fans, and for them it will be worth at least a rental. But those who don’t really know or care about that universe won’t find anything that will make them more eager to learn any more about it.

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