Before we jump into the movie itself, it's probably necessary, given the niche market of a universe-expansion film, to explain how little I know about the 'Halo' franchise. When the original game was the hottest thing ever, my buddies and I would hook up an Xbox during lunch hours and, sometimes, after work. This was just before (and then during) Xbox Live. To have more than four players, we had to physically connect multiple consoles in the same room.
I adore video games, but except for driving games, I'm a pretty crap gamer. So as the sequel launched and the Xbox became the Xbox 360, I stopped playing. I know about the Master Chief. I know it's a future war against a bunch of space baddies. I know about Warthogs. But that's pretty much it.
A couple months ago, I was listening to talk radio and heard director Stewart Hendler ('Sorority Row') talking about 'Forward Unto Dawn'. He described how Microsoft had spent a few million dollars on the project, that it was playing for free via Machinima with a new chapter coming out every Friday until the game's official launch, and that millions were watching it.
I figured, why the hell not check it out? These sci-fi web series, or shorts, can be pretty damn impressive. For those who know the game well, this is an origin story about Thomas Lasky (Tom Green), who I guess becomes a commander or something in the future space army, set during his time at the Corbuluo military academy when he met the Master Chief for the first time. Lasky is struggling to find his military voice -– his mother's an important general and his brother's a former top-student and war hero. But Lasky doesn't take orders well and, because he screws up so much, his fellow cadets hate him. Lasky's only friend and possible romantic interest, Cadet Silva (Anna Popplewell of the 'Narnia' films), pushes Lasky to become the soldier he's meant to be. A leader. A hero. And when an alien force attacks the academy, Lasky, Silva, and the other Cadets will find out if their training means anything in real war.
As a web series, 'Forward Unto Dawn' was instantly captivating. Each 20-minute segment opened up with a mysterious teaser about an empty spaceship floating endlessly through space. There's one survivor, but who is it? 'Halo 3' fans will probably know. Then we meet Lasky during a training exorcize and we're off. The characterizations are pretty familiar for those who watch military movies, but really well done. I think Lasky's arc could have been plotted a little better, but I liked his story, and the series' balance of action and character. For the most part, the actors are well cast and pretty believable, though anyone who has spent time at an actual military academy may find a few issues.
I was about half way through the series – just as the aliens were arriving – when I stopped watching because this Blu-ray was announced. I was enjoying the films so much, I wanted to save the rest in hopes of better picture and full surround sound. But, this Blu-ray edition doesn't include the original cuts; it's a Special Edition, which is unnecessarily longer. For example, those mysterious teasers I mentioned above are all cut into one long title sequence. And there's a new scene where we meet all of the cadets getting their military haircuts while they tell you who they are and their important character traits. While the web series was brief and engaging, pulling you along because you wanted to know more about the characters and a few mysterious they were uncovering, the Special Edition is front loaded, slower, and a little clunky.
However, despite my preference for the web series cut, this $5 million dollar film is pretty damn impressive in terms of special effects. There's a lot of money saved by shooting indoors and physical locations, but when the camera pulls back, the military academy, space ships, and alien creatures look great. There's also a real working Warthog, which adds an exciting element to the film's third act.
The only aspect I can't really comment on is how accurate the film is to the franchise as a whole, and specifically as a tie in to 'Halo 4'. My apologies, of course, but I sat down to watch this as a movie first. Feel free to discuss costume/weapon/character/setting discrepancies in the movie's forum thread. Just know that the filmmakers appear to be huge fans of the universe.
Overall, I enjoyed 'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn'. As I said before, I think this longer cut is a little over-stuffed, and a little on the nose for some characters, and ending didn't really resonate with me, but that's most likely because I've been removed from the game for so long. I actually expected to understand even less, but the filmmakers were smart in making a story that pretty much anyone who likes sci fi or war movies will be able to follow. If you're a 'Halo' fan, you'll probably like it even more. Regardless, for this budget, the film's sense of scope and world building is remarkable.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Microsoft Studios and 343 Industries, housed as a single disc set in a standard Blu-ray case with no slip cover. There is no mention of Region locking on the disc or packaging, but we have only tested it in Region A equipment. The film is also included with the 'Halo 4 Limited Edition' Xbox 360 Game.
'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' debuts on Blu-ray with a high resolution, but troublesome AVC MPEG-4 encode, framed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
As I said before, I held off on watching the last couple web series entries online after signing up to review this Blu-ray because I wanted to watch the film on a bigger screen with better picture and sound. Sadly, I'm not sure if this was the right decision.
For the most part, this movie looks terrific, especially brighter and outdoor sequence. Resolution is abundant, with lots of facial features, costumes, and location textures. Skin tones are spot on. The visual effects generally appear photo realistic (especially the interior of the empty space ship and the space elevator attack). Black levels aren't perfect, but are far from terrible.
The real probable is banding. Horrible, horrible banding any time there is a vast difference between ultra-dark and bright images on screen. I can't quite tell if this is native the film's photography or the encode / post production process, but it takes what I expected to be a solid picture, and drops it down into exactly average. Perhaps it won't bother you, but what a shame.
Overall, 'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' looks just okay on Blu-ray, and doesn't provide an appreciable upgrade over the original 720p or 1080p YouTube broadcasts
While the video is mediocre, 'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' features a sonically pleasing 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix.
The only nitpick I have with this mix is, on very few occasions, some of the more gravely voices seemed mixed a little hot. Otherwise, and despite the fraction of the budget, this web series sounds as good as many modern Hollywood blockbusters. Dialog is always audible, though a touch quiet in some of the more aggressive battle sequences. Sound effects pan nicely, left to right and front to back. Bullets and explosions were especially on point. LFE fans will enjoy the deep punches from the alien ships, weapons, and even voices.
The highlight for me, other than the discrete and dynamic effects, was Nathan Lanier's original score, which conveys many of the film's emotional and adrenaline pumping moments very well. Based on his IMDB credits, Mr. Lanier is just starting out, but film score fans may want to keep a look out for his future work.
'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' has a better special features package than many current Hollywood movies. And, most of them come with a full surround sound mix to boot.
'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' is an engaging military academy drama with some huge sci-fi setpieces and a tie in to one of gaming's most successful franchises. Under the guidance of Steward Hendler and his team of writers and collaborators, the filmmakers do a pretty great job, especially when you take in budgetary considerations. However, there are a few things to consider when buying this Blu-ray. While the Special Features package is fantastic and the 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix is terrific, the picture is only average thanks to severe banding and I felt this Special Edition cut of the film wasn't as strong as the original web series version (unavailable on this disc). Whether or not to purchase, I suppose, goes back more to how much you know and love the game. As mentioned above, this Blu-ray, with all its special features, is included with the limited edition 'Halo 4' game and, as of December 2012, you can watch the entire webseries on YouTube for free (along with a few ads). The sound isn't as good, but the picture is about the same.
There's a section, in some gaming reviews, where the reviewer will talk about repeatability (I think that's right). How well will the game stand up when you replay the single (or multi) player story. Because it's based on a gaming universe, I asked myself the same question about this film. For me, I say definitely check out 'Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn' online. If you love it, and want to learn how they made it, buy this Blu-ray. But, while impressive at times (especially the VFX and sound mix), repeat viewings of the movie and Special Features are probably for fans only.