Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn Blu-ray delivers great video and superb audio in this exceptional Blu-ray release
In 2525, as mankind has begun to colonise space, a group of cadets are training to fight against human insurrectionists. One of these cadets, Thomas Lasky, has doubts about his abilities as a soldier and his convictions for this war. Whilst he struggles with himself, the planet is invaded by an unknown alien race. Reeling under the assault, Lasky and his squad mates are rescued by John-117, one of the UNSC's legendary SPARTAN-II super-soldiers. John must inspire Lasky to fulfill his potential as a soldier and a leader to fight against an enemy deadlier than any that humanity has faced before.
For more about Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn Blu-ray release, see Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on December 5, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Once upon a time, in November of 2001, a little game called Halo: Combat Evolved single handedly put the original Xbox on the map, ungodly "fatty" controller and all. Without Combat Evolved, the distinct identity and unparalleled push it gave the fledgling Microsoft console, and the hugely successful series sequel that followed in 2004, it's quite possible the Xbox would have gone gently into the night. No Xbox 360, no Halo 3, no Halo Wars, no Halo 3: ODST, no Halo: Reach. No midnight release parties, or late night killtaculars. No tie-in novels, comics, art books, T-shirts, Red vs. Blue shorts, Megablok sets or action figures. No expanded Halo universe. No promise of a live-action movie, and no tantalizing glimpse at what a live-action movie could be. Which is exactly what 343 Industries $10 million Machinima Prime web series, Forward Unto Dawn, is. More than a loose Halo 4 prequel, Dawn plays like a 91-minute pitch reel, and a persuasive one at that. It also showcases the rich, character-driven outer rim of the Halo universe, and makes a strong case that the series mythos -- not just the combat -- has evolved beyond one Spartan super soldier and his rampancy-afflicted AI construct.
At the United Nations Space Command Academy of Military Science, a group of cadets are training to be the next generation of leaders in the UNSC's ongoing war with insurrectionists on the colonial planets. Among these cadets is Thomas Lasky (Tom Green), who struggles with doubts about the war and with the burden of expectations he may not be able to carry. As Lasky comes to terms with his potential as a military leader, the terrifying alien alliance known as the Covenant arrives and threatens to destroy everything he knows.
The more steeped in Halo lore you are, the more you'll enjoy Forward Unto Dawn, particularly during its slowburn first hour. Newcomers and grunt fodder will be disappointed for the better part of the web series' five episodes, wondering -- perhaps aloud -- "where's Master Chief?" Aside from a brief appearance during the opening credits sequence, though, the Chief (Daniel Cudmore) doesn't stride into frame again until well into Part 4, and even then he's more of a running, gunning set piece than a fully realized hero. (Suffice it to say, Dawn's cover art can be a bit misleading.) The Covenant are MIA for much of the movie too. Even when they finally descend on an unsuspecting UNSC military academy, they're largely cloaked in shadow, fog or, in the case of one particularly merciless plasma sword-wielding Elite, utterly convincing active camo. It's all fairly evocative, sure, and suits the story, which rewinds all the way to 2525, when much of humanity was unaware of the alien horde gathering against it. But it also feels a touch anticlimactic, even if the culprit is more likely the web series' relatively limited budget than creative short-sight. (It's a sad day when $10 million is a drop in the cinematic bucket.)
There are other issues too, or at least there will be in the eyes of those who come to Dawn critically, expecting something akin to a big-screen Halo outing or a live-action revelation. The CG-born visual effects, green screen work, weapons fire and Covenant forces look fantastic, but the practical production values suffer. Military uniforms, training gear and Spartan armor are more high-end cosplay than seamless, lived-in costuming. Guns and firearms are hit or miss, and struck me as clunky and oversized in anything other than the Chief's hands. And the lone Warthog deployed in scene after scene after scene, masterfully constructed and believable as it is, actually makes the world feel smaller and more contained. (Especially when the Covenant's fleet of massive cruisers first descends through the clouds.) It doesn't help that director Stewart Hendler and writers Aaron and Todd Helbing hold back until the final two episodes, saving up the bulk of their cash for the inevitable clash of ground forces that is to come. Smart filmmaking, you might say, and I'd be pressed to agree. It does give the Helbings plenty of time to develop arcs for many of their recruits and officers, Lasky and love interest Chyler Silva (Anna Popplewell) first among them, and it establishes story, rather than action, as the priority. But it all grows a bit too slow. The training exercises aren't unique or riveting enough to justify so much attention, a few of the actors aren't strong enough to sustain their screentime (the demure Enisha Brewster leaps to mind), and the second episode feels a tad redundant.
I'd suggest muscling through all that, though, setting up camp and digging in. Devoting the first three episodes to the bickering cadets eventually pays off; the performances, drama and action are by and large excellent; and longtime Halo fans will relish the detail, subtle nods and franchise easter eggs the filmmakers have kneaded into every episode. (Lasky's struggle to steer the Warthog will send any gamer into fits of knowing laughter.) Not that it's all fan service. Plenty of memorable moments -- some brief, some grand -- lie in wait for anyone wise enough to go in as blind as possible, and plenty more make Forward Unto Dawn one of the more satisfying and faithful live-action videogame productions to date. Still not convinced? No worries. Watching Master Chief scurry up the back of a Hunter before taking the beast down with a grenade is worth the price of admission alone. As a web series, Dawn delivers far more often than it disappoints. As a prequel to Halo 4, it works brilliantly. (Making the older, wiser, battle-hardened Lasky that much more interesting a character and ally to Master Chief.) As a pitch reel for the billion-dollar-box-office Halo film that could be, it's promising. As a full-fledged film, it's imperfect but fairly gripping. And as a gift to Halo fans, it's more than generous. More please; next time with a bigger budget, more familiar faces, more Chief vs. Covenant battles, and more scope and scale.
Anderson Merchandise's second Blu-ray release drops planetside with an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that struggles with just one flaw: mild to moderate banding. Though most likely inherent to the web series' high definition source, it does prove distracting from time to time, particularly when the Chief flips on his helmet lights in the scenes following his rescue of Lasky and the other cadets. Thankfully, it isn't all that unsightly, nor pervasive, and never becomes so much of an issue that it spoils the proceedings. Otherwise, Forward Unto Dawn's presentation is quite good. For the better part of three episodes, colors are primarily subdued, aged or militaristic, with warm earthtones and glowing viewscreens providing the bulk of the palette's punch. Once the Covenant arrive, though, primaries ignite, the pink flash of Needler spikes and the green energy of Hunter cannons light up the screen, and shadows become more ominous and frightening. All the while, detail remains refined and revealing, with clean edges, well-resolved fine textures, rewarding closeups and decent delineation. The CG aliens don't stick out like a sore thumb either, and most of the visual effects are decidedly high caliber. Moreover, significant macroblocking, errant noise, aliasing and other troubling anomalies aren't at play, and the few enemies that sneak through trace back to the source. Ultimately, Forward Unto Dawn's Blu-ray release is the only way to watch the web series. So get to it, soldier. That's an order.
Dawn's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is even better, delivering the sort of absorbing 360° experience I'd expect from a summer blockbuster with ten times the budget. It isn't faultless, mind you. There are a few minor mixing issues, some prioritization oversights and a handful of other small mishaps. But considering its $10 million price tag, I expected much, much less. LFE output is strong and scrappy, leaping headlong into whatever fray Master Chief, Lasky and the cadets find themselves in with convincing weight, notable power and enviable oomph. Flyovers resonate, explosions roar, gunfire kicks, plasma blasts erupt, towers rumble as they collapse, and ground assaults are backed by unsung reinforcements. The rear speakers don't sit the battle out either, latching onto every weapon discharge, distant cry for help, ambient effect, alarm, spray of water, whizzing sniper shot and splintering needle the soundscape has on tap. Directionality is a tad imprecise but effective all the same, cross-channel pans are smooth, dynamics are commendable and Nathan Lanier's driving score fills out the soundfield nicely. And dialogue? Aside from the aforementioned prioritization hiccups (which are few and far between), voices are clean, clear and fully capable. Even when the chaos of the Covenant attack threatens to overtake the cowering cadets' whispers, each word fights through, demanding to be heard. It isn't perfect, but it comes much closer than I anticipated. For a web series mix, it doesn't get much better than this.
Audio Commentaries: Three commentaries are available -- the first with director Stewart Hendler, the second with 343 Industries franchise director Frank O'Connor and managing editor Kevin Grace, and the third with producer Josh Feldman and writers Aaron and Todd Helbing -- and all three are worth a listen. Granted, it takes a true Halo junkie to sit through 270-minutes of commentary, but the tracks are neither repetitive or redundant, and each group focuses on different aspects of the web series' production and the Halo universe proper.
Behind the Scenes (HD, 58 minutes): As if that weren't enough, the Blu-ray edition of Forward Unto Dawn features a terrific nine-part documentary. Chapters include "Bringing Halo Into Reality," "Awakening a Sleeper: The Making of Forward Unto Dawn," "The Perfect Spartan," "Rendering the Real: The Design," "One Epic Tour: The Stunts," "Outfitting the War: The Costumes," "A Drive with Warthog Pete," "Built for Battle," "The Final Arc" and "Tether to Digital Space."
Pre-Release Vignettes (HD, 22 minutes): A number of additional featurettes and goodies.
Isolated Score (HD): Nathan Lanier's score, albeit via a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track.
Corbulo Academy of Military Sciences Recruitment Video (HD, 2 minutes): An in-movie recruitment video.
Red vs. Blue PSR: Sleeper (HD, 3 minutes): Fans will roll. Newcomers will scratch their heads.
Sully's Comm Database (HD): Galleries with photos, storyboards, concept art, models and other images.
Trailers (HD, 4 minutes): A teaser and a full trailer round out the supplemental package.
I'm knee deep in Halo 4's multiplayer mode, working my way toward the bonus Specializations that came with my Limited Edition copy of the game. I've already defeated the Campaign, solo on Legendary. I've completed every Spartan Ops mission thus far, again on Legendary. And I'm quickly running out of things to do. I don't say all of that to boast -- I'm sure many of you are even farther along -- but to clue you into just how addicted to the Halo universe I am. In many ways, that makes Forward Unto Dawn a more satisfying film, as fans will definitely get more out of its five-episode arc than relative newcomers. In some ways, it makes me more critical of its mistakes and shortcomings. On the whole, though, Dawn ups the ante again and again, and in the end puts most feature film videogame adaptations to shame. Anderson Merchandise's Blu-ray release is even more rewarding, thanks to an excellent video transfer, an enveloping DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and more than six hours of prime special features. I don't know about you, but I couldn't ask for much more. Don't hesitate. Take the shot.
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Microsoft studio 343 Industries, in conjunction with Anderson Merchandisers, is releasing its upcoming webseries Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn on Blu-ray. The series will premiere on Halo Waypoint and Machinima.com October 5th, and ultimately arrive on Blu-ray on December ...
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