Review: Halo: Nightfall (2014)

Ironically, this film shines brightest in the darkness - if only it had stayed there

In 2001, when it was first released, Halo did so with the additional moniker ‘Combat Evolved’, a name by Bungie showing their belief that their product would be the next stage in evolution for the first person shooter genre. Sure, a lot of features had been seen before, but in no video game had all of these features been placed together in this way, and with this amount of sophistication – a boastful move to say the least, but one that paid off spectacularly.

It is a testament to the work that Bungie did that Halo continues to exist to this day when so many other franchises have collapsed under the weight of sequels that didn’t measure up, release date delays or lack of creative oversight. Where other franchise’s have failed, Halo has succeeded, and such is Halo’s success that not only did it survive a move to 343 Studios, but it has also seen success on the small screen, in the form of Halo: Forward unto Dawn. Halo has even influenced the way that Microsoft has designed its digital assistants and next generation browsers, now named Cortana and Spartan respectfully.

Forward under Dawn was a near-universal success. Many critics and fans alike praised it for the quality of its cast, the complexity of its story, and for the believability of its treatment of the Halo Universe. It received a Streamy Award, a Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel for sound editing, and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for main title design. All in all, people felt it was an achievement, and the fanbase felt that if Forward under Dawn was the first in a series of Halo projects, then whatever came next would surely be an improvement. Considering the high quality of this first foray, people were confident that the follow-up would be something utterly spectacular.

What utter fools we were.

I want to make it clear, the problem isn’t that Halo: Nightfall is an absolutely bad film – there is quality and talent here – the problem is that this quality and talent is so outnumbered by mediocrity that, a lot of the time, finding it is like trying to find a single iron filing on the floor in the Sahara Desert with only a magnifying glass and a tweezer to help you look: you know it’s there, but you’re going to have to work to get at it.

Take, for example, the cavalier attitude Nightfall shows towards Halo’s internal lore in the opening crawl where we learn that there’s apparently a peace treaty between humanity and The Covenant. As every Halo fan knows, there is no Covenant anymore, just a large group of factions, some of them against the humans, some of them allied with. I understand that it would have been a bit too much to explain the plot of six games, one movie and more than two dozen books in the space of an opening crawl, but would it really have been too much to ask that they change ‘The Covenant’ to ‘former Covenant species’?

You may think I’m being picky, perhaps showing my colours as a dedicated Halo fan, but you have to keep something in mind when analysing a work such as Halo: Nightfall: it exists only to complement the games and sell more of them. In that kind of relationship, you can’t mislead people, you can’t introduce them to this world with one fact and then, without any warning, tell them ‘No, sorry. We know this told you the world looked this way, but it actually looks this way.’ To do so makes the entire franchise look patchworked when a massive franchise like Halo needs consistency, not just in terms of plot points but also in quality. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. After all, according to Halo: Nightfall, idiocy is to the Haloverse what hydrogen is to our universe. Firstly, let’s look at Agent Jameson Locke (Mike Colter) and his band of merry men: highly trained paramilitary case officers of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the best of the best in an organisation that makes the CIA’s Special Activity Division look like a group of forum moderators. At the beginning of the film, they’re doing undercover work tracking alien smugglers on a world (Sedra) that isn’t too fond of them or their government, and yet they go about their mission with ONI patches on, clear as day. Admittedly, I don’t know the specifics about how Intelligence Agencies work in warzones (beyond what playing Beyond: Two Souls and reading the big red MI6 book has taught me) but even I know that a highly trained group of space spies belonging to a secret organisation wouldn’t advertise the fact that they’re a group of highly trained space spies belonging to a secret organization. I don’t know who planned this mission or decided that ONI should have uniforms, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t the descendants of General Melchett and Captain Darling.

And it’s not just the military who take hold of the idiot ball; the Sedran civilians make a running pass with it early on during an attack by an Elite Zealot, when, instead of running at the sight of this heavily armoured former enemy, they just stand and look. And you’d expect there’d be some reaction when guns start going off, especially from parents with young children in the area, but no. Apparently the local Sedran custom is to ignore heavily armoured former enemies and stand still while people are shooting. I could ignore this, say it was just because they brought in lay people to fill in the extras, or if the early parts Nightfall looked pretty, but they don’t. In fact, the visuals are almost insulting.

Take Halo’s new aliens, the Yonhet, for example; they look as though someone had walked off the lot from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and was pushed into the shot, and I don’t know why they’ve done it, either. Halo has a proud tradition of showing aliens who were obviously not guys in rubber suits. The only time it featured a species similar to humanity, it was a plot point and there was a three foot size difference. The Yonhet look like guys with rubber suits. The Yonhet are guys with rubber suits. You could argue that this was a consequence of having a relatively small budget, but it is just seems lazy. At least it saves us from more painfully bad CGI renders of classic Halo aliens, as we get in the first half.

Thankfully, once the plot gets started, there is a vast improvement in terms of both writing and production values. Instead of settling into a military procedural/mystery, Nightfall becomes something tonally that isn’t too different from t from Aliens (1986). It’s not exactly horror in the traditional sense, more like if HP Lovecraft wrote Starship Troopers, but whatever it is, it comes with a greater emphasis on character interaction than we got in the first half, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s good. It’s very, very good – Nightfall’s saving grace, in fact. Because, while there are problems with the script (even in the second half), the actors never fail to deliver anything but their best.

I was particularly impressed with Steve Waddington, who portrayed Colonel Randall Aiken, and Christina Chong, who portrayed Talitha Macer. Waddington was able to successfully convey a man much smarter than his actions or his words might convey and Chong managed to imbue Macer with the kind of confidence mixed with desperation that you’d expect someone with her character’s history would have. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Waddington’s long career and the fact that Chong is in demand in Hollywood at the moment – most notably as a as of yet un-named character in Star Wars: The Force Awakened.

On the subject of Colter’s interpretation of Jameson Locke, I think he had a difficult role to play. When creating a protagonist for a first person shooter, you can’t give them too much character otherwise you’ll ruin the immersion, but at the same time, you have to give the voice actor something to work with. Likewise, although we were introduced to him somewhat in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, we haven’t really got to know him yet, and I think his real introduction is being saved until Halo: Guardians. Ultimately, although I wasn’t overly impressed with Colter’s work in Nightfall, I wasn’t disappointed with it either. He did well with a blank state. Most of Locke’s character development will come in Halo: Guardians and I can respect that.

The relationship between the Sedran Colonial Guard and the ONI Officers is frosty to say the least because of jurisdiction friction, but I was very glad that neither Aiken or Locke get seriously into it. Locke is a guy just doing his job and Aiken is there to prevent a holocaust. It was a welcome sign that Nightfall’s writers decided to show us just why these two men are in command. Both of them can see past their own ego and personal concern and instead work towards the greater good, even in the face of personal tragedy. Likewise, when things start going bad on the Alpha Shard, it was nice to see that things weren’t going bad just because: we were shown that the characters who were acting up were doing so because at the prospect of dying alone, far away from home with their families having no knowledge of what happened to them while other people escape, the only option was to mutiny. And you know what? I don’t blame them. You can say what you want, Halo: Nightfall might be lacking in logic and reason, but it isn’t lacking in emotion.

Even the production values and CGI that seemed to be lacking improved once Nightfall’s plot gets started. The Alpha Shard, for one, seemed to be exactly the charred, dead ‘hell’ that the Yonhet smuggler Axl (Jonathan Harden) had described it as, and the horrors on the Alpha Shard were truly blood curdlingly terrifying. Compare and contrast that to the lovely Canadian forest, mall, bad CGI and rubber masked aliens of the first half, and you’ll see a marked improvement between the two. I’m not sure if it’s because they spent more time and money on the parts set on the Alpha Shard, or if things do look better when it’s dark, but either way after such a disappointing opening section, to see some care and attention being paid is a much-needed relief.

Ultimately then, is Halo: Nightfall worth it?

Sadly, no. While Halo: Nightfall isn’t an absolute disappointment, it never gets close to the benchmark set by Forward under Dawn, despite the improvement later on. If it had been edited better, perhaps if it had started just before the two teams were about to land on the Alpha Shard and we were treated to the first part though flash-backs or voice overs, then perhaps I’d feel comfortable recommending it, but that’s not what we got, and so I can’t.

To long term Halo fans, Halo: Nightfall may be of some small interest, but you’re not missing anything by ignoring it, and for everyone else, it’s just a relatively sub-par science fiction film which couldn’t be saved by a team of wonderfully talented actors and a better written second half. Either way, there’s nothing highly evolved about it.

Production Values and CGI
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