Halo gamers and sci-fi fans in general had reason to perk up this past May when it was announced that Steven Spielberg was producing a live-action series based on the video-game franchise for Microsoft’s Xbox Live service. It was another shot across the bow of traditional networks, and an excellent consolation prize for everybody who was still cheesed off that the Neill Blomkamp-directed Halo movie never came to fruition. Well, this past week Latino Review broke rumors that Blomkamp might be revisiting the one that got away, possibly directing the new Halo pilot. But with the prospect of finally seeing Halo come to the small screen, it’s worth looking back at the big-screen outing we almost got.
On the face of it, a Halo movie makes perfect sense. Even knowing how tricky it can be to translate a video-game narrative into a film, it’s kind of stunning that we haven’t gotten a Halo movie yet. Not even a bad one (and let’s face it, video-game movies don’t have a great track record). After all, we’ve seen properties with far less big-screen potential get pushed through the system, and very few of them have anything close to the ridiculous success of the Halo games behind them. The most recent installment, Halo 4, made $220 million on its first day of release. It came out in November 2012, and by December 6 it had sold around four million copies. This is exactly the sort of IP that gives Hollywood executives wet dreams. Microsoft is now hard at work on Halo 5.
Back in 2005, it looked like the Halo movie was well under way, destined to drop our jaws on the silver screen sooner rather than later. Screenwriter Alex Garland (Dredd, Sunshine, 28 Days Later…) got paid a cool million to pen a draft of what should have been a theoretical box-office sure thing. In an interview with IGN, Garland revealed that his draft was a fairly straightforward adaptation of the original 2001 game, which follows the adventures of Master Chief, a super-soldier battling aliens across the mysterious ringworld structure of the title. You can read Garland’s Halo script right here to see what we missed out on. Garland told IGN:
It took an element of the ending of the second Halo game for the ending, and basically, I sat down with those guys at Bungee and Microsoft and said what I would do is a very faithful adaptation. I had bits of imagery in my mind — a lot of them came from the game, but you could also relate that imagery to other things, like Starship Troopers or something like that. A less satirical version of Starship Troopers.
Once they had a script, Microsoft needed a studio to help make Halo happen. On June 6, 2005, they infamously sent actors wearing replicas of the game’s Spartan battle armor into each of the top studios, bearing a copy of the script and Microsoft’s terms for any Halo film project. According to Vulture, Microsoft’s terms were daunting: they wanted $10 million up front, and 15% of the eventual box office gross. It was ballsy, to say the least, but then again Halo’s sales figures spoke for themselves.
Eventually Fox and Universal agreed to collaborate on the project and talked Microsoft down to $5 million upfront and 10% of the grosses. It wasn’t long before the the project began attracting names that would get any fan worth their salt salivating. Guillermo del Toro was onboard to direct for a time, but eventually bailed to make Hellboy II instead. Then Peter Jackson was hired on as a producer, but his price to direct could have been daunting — he’d just made $20 million against 20% of theatrical grosses for Universal’s King Kong remake. Universal production president Mary Parent and Jackson hit on the idea of giving the big chair to Jackson’s “protege,” a South African director named Neill Blomkamp. His science fiction short film Alive in Joburg (which served as the basis for District 9) was a damned impressive calling card, and, let’s face it, he was going to be a lot cheaper to put in the director’s chair than Jackson.
Keep in mind, this was before Blomkamp proved his mettle with District 9, so it’s kind of amazing that he was handed the keys to a $200 million wannabe franchise-builder based on one of the most successful game series of all time. But the director, for one, thought he was absolutely the right guy for the job, telling Fox Co-chairman of Filmed Entertainment Tom Rothman that he was “genetically created to direct Halo.” Last year we finally did get to see what Blomkamp would do with a massive budget: his film Elysium cost around $115 million and grossed $286 million worldwide.
Sadly, while Blomkamp might well have been ideally suited to bring a Halo movie to the big screen, his time on the project was not fun. In the 2012 book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, Blomkamp put it bluntly:
My instinct was that if I crawled into that hornet’s nest it would be not good, and it was a clusterfuck from day one.There’s no question that there was a clash of worlds, for sure. The two sides weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.
Ironically, the gritty aesthetic that wowed people in Joburg, and eventually District 9, was exactly the thing about his Halo vision that the studios weren’t sold on. Blomkamp recalls:
Rothman hated me, I think he would have gotten rid of me if he could have. The suits weren’t happy with the direction I was going. Thing was, though, I’d played Halo and I play videogames. I’m that generation more than they are and I know that my version of Halo would have been insanely cool. It was more fresh and potentially could have made more money than just a generic, boring film — something like G.I. Joe or some crap like that, that Hollywood produces.
During Blomkamp’s Halo tenure, the script went through several versions, with drafts being penned by Scott Frank (Minority Report), D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones, and Josh Olson (A History of Violence). Jackson’s Weta Workshop created physical versions of the game’s iconic armor and weaponry, which was used to create a series of test shorts to demonstrate Blomkamp’s vision for the movie. That footage was later collected and used to promote Halo 3, edited together under the name Halo: Landfall.
The Halo film finally collapsed in October 2006, and in the end it wasn’t the creative differences that killed it dead, but rather the money. After reaching an impasse about the financial side of things, the Halo movie fell apart and became one of the great “what could have been” stories of science fiction history. As Blomkamp put it in 2012:
One of the complicating factors with Halo was that Microsoft wasn’t the normal party that you’d go off and option the IP from and make your product. Because Microsoft is such an omnipresent, powerful corporation, they weren’t just going to sit back and not take a massive cut of the profits. When you have a corporation that potent and that large taking a percentage of the profits, then you’ve got Peter Jackson taking a percentage of the profits and you start adding all of that stuff up, mixed with the fact that you have two studios sharing the profits, suddenly the return on the investment starts to decline so that it becomes not worth making. Ultimately, that’s essentially what killed the film.
But Blomkamp’s bad experiences on Halo were about more than just the money, and he vowed never again to work with Fox. “Unless they pay me some ungodly amount of money and I have absolute fucking control.”
That the studios’ ideas of what would make a good Halo movie didn’t align with Halo fan Blomkamp’s ideas isn’t terribly surprising — bad adaptations of beloved IPs are far, far more common than good ones. Still, you have to wonder if the director would have met with less resistance were this all happening after Blomkamp’s District 9 had come out. As has been observed many times before, that movie was only budgeted at $30 million, but it looked like it could have cost many times that, and it earned a whopping $210 million worldwide. For that matter, Blomkamp’s Halo probably would have had a much better chance of success if he had developed it today, when the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven that a fan-favorite property, in the hands of talented people who love it and “get it,” can be an excuse to basically start printing money.
But now, nearly a decade after he tried to bring Halo to a movie theater near you, it looks like Blomkamp might get a second chance, albeit in a different medium. With non-traditional media such as Netflix and Amazon blazing trails in producing original content, Microsoft no doubt wants a piece of that action, and a Halo live-action series could be the flagship for Xbox Live to establish itself as a serious player in that arena. It will also almost certainly be given a smaller budget to work with, which could be a good thing. Blomkamp has proven that he can serve up amazing, convincing science fiction worlds on a comparatively modest budget, and that’s a talent that could be crucial in creating a Halo series that lives up to fan expectations and the franchise’s previous record of success.
For now, of course, Blomkamp’s involvement is just a rumor, but Latino Review has a very solid track record when it comes to rumors, and it makes perfect sense that Microsoft and Spielberg would approach Blomkamp for this new iteration. Will Blomkamp’s Halo dreams finally come true? Time will tell, but his last foray to an artificial space ring worked out pretty well, so we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed. In the meantime, you can watch Blomkamp’s Halo: Landfall below.