From Super Mario Bros in the 90s and on to the recent Assassin’s Creed, it’s fair to say that movies adapted from videogames seldom fare well. But there’s one movie, now sadly lost to history, that might just have bucked that trend: Neill Blomkamp’s Halo.
In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was the game that helped launch Microsoft’s first ever console, the Xbox. A first-person shooter with an absorbing sci-fi plot and a cool character at its core – the anonymous, armoured super-soldier, Master Chief – Halo sold over a million copies within its first few months of sale, and soon went on to become one of the most popular and influential games of its generation.
Little wonder, then, that Microsoft began to start thinking about adapting Halo for other media, including – you guessed it – a big-budget film spin-off. Word first emerged of a Halo movie in 2005, when Microsoft announced that it had signed up The Beach, Sunshine and 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland to pen the screenplay. Unusually, Microsoft didn’t simply want to sell the rights to Halo off to a Hollywood studio and let them get on with developing the IP into a movie; instead, the tech firm hired Garland directly – in a reported “multi-million dollar” deal – to help create a fully-realised package which could then be sold on to a studio.
The strategy was headed up by Peter Schlessel, former president of production at Columbia Pictures, and he devised a unique approach for selling Halo to Hollwood studios. Microsoft, perhaps with the debacle that was the Super Mario movie in mind, wanted to keep a firm control over Halo, yet it had no experience of dealing with Hollywood.
Schlessel therefore became Microsoft’s go-between, and together with Tinseltown talent agency CAA, came up with a cunning plan: one morning in June 2005, a bunch of actors dressed in Master Chief actors were despatched all over Hollywood with copies of the Halo script. Executives and script readers at such studios as New Line, Fox, Universal and were then given a few hours to read the screenplay, while the person in the Master Chief outfit hung around outside their office.
According to a piece at Wired, the studios were told, “You need to have all your decision makers in a room because we’re going to deliver the script for you to read together with a terms sheet. But there’s a fuse on it. You’ll only have a certain amount of time to make a deal.”
Microsoft wasn’t about to let the rights to sell the rights to Halo cheaply, either. The firm evidently thought it had a potential Star Wars on its hands, since it wanted $10m up front, 15 percent of the film’s gross profits and, in a further show of confidence, demanded 60 first class plane tickets so that its top employees could go to the premiere.
Nevertheless, a deal was hatched – though not necessarily the one Microsoft might have wanted. Rather than simply try to outbid each other for the Halo rights, Fox and Universal came to a mutual agreement, where Universal would sell the movie in America and Fox would deal with selling it overseas. Nevertheless, the deal was signed, and these three huge entities – Microsoft, Universal and Fox – moved onto the next stage of the project: getting some filmmakers involved.
By October, it was announced that Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh were on board as executive producers. This was quite a coup, given Jackson’s track record on the hit Lord Of The Rings movies and the resources he oversaw at Weta Digital, his cutting-edge effects company. As a result, the Halo movie was set to be shot entirely in Wellington, New Zealand, with its release scheduled for the summer of 2007. Things seemed to be progressing quickly, particularly when it was announced that Guillermo del Toro was going to direct.
One look at the long list of firms and producers involved in Halo, however, might provide an indication that all would not run smoothly on the production of Halo. Microsoft was anxious to retain creative control over its treasured property; Fox and Universal had their own ideas, while Jackson, a self-described fan of the Halo, no doubt had a creative vision of his own. This might be why del Toro soon abandoned Halo in favour of a more personal project – Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
With a vacancy to fill, Peter Jackson turned to a young director of commercials and short films: Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp, himself an avid gamer, leapt at the chance to adapt Halo, though his inexperience when it came to filmmaking made some executives at Microsoft nervous. Nevertheless, Blomkamp worked on the project with enthusiasm, spending around five months at Weta developing a rewrite of the script and imagining what his version of the Halo universe.
So what would the big-screen Halo have looked like? Well, we don’t know what changes Blomkamp was thinking of making to Alex Garland’s script, but it seems that Microsoft was keen to hew closely to the story told in the original Halo videogame. In the near future, humanity has reached out into space, and wound up in a battle with an alien coalition called the Covenant. During one blistering fight, genetically-enhanced Spartan warrior Master Chief winds up on an alien planet, where a deadly, parasitic force called the Flood is unleashed. A mysterious orbiting station, the Halo, initially appears to offer a means of defending Earth from the Flood, before it emerges that the Halo’s defences are so powerful that they too have the potential to wipe out all forms of life.
In terms of visual texture, you only have to look at Blomkamp’s shorts and feature films to see what Halo would have looked like. He was intent on bringing a used-future grittiness to Halo, with a darker, edgier aesthetic than a scrubbed-up video adaptation like 2003‘s Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life. You can get a taste of what Blomkamp’s movie might have looked like in the short film he produced at the time, apparently created because he was frustrated at the production’s painfully slow progress.
Halo’s producers weren’t exactly enamoured with Blomkamp’s scuffed, oily sci-fi universe, though – 20th Century Fox boss Tim Rothman was particularly unimpressed, according to Blomkamp.
“Rothman hated me, I think he would have gotten rid of me if he could have,” the director told Wired in 2012. “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.”
It wasn’t their lack of confidence in Blomkamp that ultimately led to Halo’s demise, however, but rather a dramatic fall-out between Fox, Universal and Microsoft. Fox and Microsoft both wanted more creative control, yet Universal had already spent $12m on the months of development that Blomkamp and Weta had put in – plus the hiring of such writers as DB Weiss (who later went on to pen Game Of Thrones) and Josh Olsen.
With the film’s budget already pegged at around $135m, and all sides demanding huge fees and profits, it seemed that Halo was turning into a creative powder keg. And in September 2006, the keg finally exploded. According to Vulture, Fox’s Tim Rothman demanded that the deal with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Peter Schlessel be torn up, or the studio would withdraw from Halo entirely. In turn, Universal went to Jackson, Walsh and Schlessel, telling them they had to take what effectively amounted to a pay cut. They flatly declined.
“Basically, the politics between Fox and Universal crashed the movie,” Blomkamp later told AV Club. “Fox wanted more control of the film, I think, and Universal was in the driver’s seat. And they were just going at one another, and finally the whole thing fractured.”
Indeed, the project fractured to such a degree that Blomkamp ruled out returning to Halo at a later date – and, in more explicit terms, vowed not to work with 20th Century Fox again. “They treated me like shit,” Blomkamp told Wired; “they were just a crappy studio. I’ll never ever work with Fox ever again because of what happened to Halo – unless they pay me some ungodly amount of money and I have absolute fucking control.”
Things soon worked out for Blomkamp, of course; after Halo collapsed, he remained under the creative wing of Peter Jackson’s production company and made District 9, a $30m sci-fi film based on his earlier short, Alive In Joburg. The movies Elysium and Chappie followed; in 2015, it was revealed that he was planning to make a sequel to 1986‘s Aliens – bringing him back in proximity to Fox, the studio he’d once sworn he’d never deal with again.
As for Halo, the videogame franchise is now over 15 years old and still going strong. We’ve seen all kinds of spin-offs, including Forward Unto Dawn, Nightfall, and an anime series, Halo Legends, but to date, a cinematic feature remains elusive. Under other circumstances, the Halo movie just might have done Avatar or Star Wars-level business; instead, what could have been the first true videogame blockbuster collapsed in a flurry of anger and threats of litigation.