HALO 4: FORWARD UNTO DAWN: aired on Machinima Prime on YouTube and Halo Waypoint on XBOX 360.
BOTTOM LINE: Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is an ambitious, mostly satisfying web series for gamers and the general YouTube population. Consider this the best video game movie that never happened.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn - Web Series Synopsis
Machinima and 343 Industries (Microsoft's new game studio in charge of the Halo 4 franchise) have created the ultimate piece of tent-pole marketing for the Halo 4 video game. The game hit shelves on election day, November 6. And for the five Fridays leading up, fans enjoyed installments of the epic web series serving as prologue to the game. In short, it's a feature length video game trailer.
The Halo universe is hailed as a science fiction masterpiece. Set in the distant future, humans are at war with a religious coalition of evil aliens called The Covenant. The Covenant tried to use ancient, race destroying technology called Halos (mysterious habitable ring worlds). Luckily the humans engineered the most badass super-soldier named Master Chief and he saves Earth and humans from the Covenant and Halo weapons in Halo 3.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is a prequel story that follows the beginnings of a galactic war fought in the previous Halo games. Set in a military academy, the story focuses on reluctant warrior Thomas Lasky (Tom Green) who is scarred by his brother's death in the ongoing civil wars. When Lasky faces expulsion and doubts war altogether, the academy is attacked by a new enemy: The Covenant. Lasky and friends survive the initial attack and team up with Master Chief (the badass super-soldier hero played in the video games) to get off the planet before it's completely destroyed.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn knows its audience: gamers and young YouTube viewers. In a stroke of brilliance Todd and Aaron Helbing go Ender's Game and focus the story on a military academy full of teenage cadets in the Halo universe. This is well programmed for the audience, Halo brand and story.
Episode 1 provides combat action, introduces a morally conflicted Lasky, and sets up the Corbulo Academy's role in the Halo universe. Lasky's relationship with female cadet Chyler Silva (Narnia's Anna Popplewell) is enjoyable however mostly plutonic. Mehaffy (Munich's Ayelet Zurer) plays Lasky's instructor/mentor and presents much needed emotional context and choice for Lasky.
In screenwriting there is a rule that scenes must either 1) move the plot forward or 2) develop the character further. Episode 2 does neither and it hurts the series early on. There are more tender moments for characters but they don't develop, and the plot seems to make a complete circle. Additionally, the confusing episode introductions linking the web series to the Halo 4 game are confusing and unrelated to the plot at hand.
These flaws aside, the remaining Episodes 3-5 are well paced and kinetic. Characters make actual choices, plots develop and payoff, and Master Chief arrives. The iconic character is a scene stealer and for any gamer it's cathartic to finally see Master Chief fight in live-action. Master Chief's bonding with Lasky is effective however brief. The main attraction for this web series is Master Chief action scenes Halo: Forward Unto Dawn delivers.
Top notch for a web series. Director Stewart Hendler and 343 Industries have created a believable, organic world consistent with the video games in look and scope. Art direction and costumes are stright from the game. Cinematography and color grading are a polished and deliver a Battlestar Galactica vibe (ironically now playing on Machinima Prime). Hendler enjoys pulling the camera back for sweeping vistas and showing the audience he's more focused on the sci-fi genre than the small screen format. The acting is efficient and mostly unspectacular.
The editing does it's best to stretch out Lasky's personal drama and keep the YouTube gamer audience entertained with action. Sound design is rich and loud, particularly in the climactic final episode. The visual effects are video game quality (no doubt provided by game's artists). That is to say they're better than most TV shows but not quite feature quality. Luckily the film takes place at night and shadows hide some of the harsh renders. For fans of FreddieW, eat your heart out.
Video Box Office (Marketing & Promotion)
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is a case study in web series marketing. The tent-pole timing. The go-big franchise programming on Machinima Prime (YouTube funded). The coordinated promotion on the Machinima network, "competitors" like IGN and YouTube advertising (chances are you've seen an ad). This is how you launch a blockbuster web series - you make it big, loud and visible. Online audiences are distracted and need constant reminders when you're series debuts, when the next episode is and why they should watch. The team and Machinima nailed this and in turn rose to #1 on the Deadline YouTube Premiums Channel Rankings.
Don't count on it to recoup their millions on the YouTube windo YouTube is lives off video game audiences and this is as premium as it gets. YouTube, Machinima and 343 Industries can expect premium ad rates and a long shelf life beyond the launch but no one is expecting a return on investment here. The feature length format will see life in home video and other licensing windows.
Web Series Grade: B
+ Blockbuster spectacle and production value
+ Web series marketing case study
- Redundant and sometimes confusing story elements