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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Halo Legends [Blu-ray]

 

(Shinji Aramaki, Hideki Futamura, et al, 2010)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Microsoft & 343 Industries

Blu-ray: Warner Home Video

 

Disc:

Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 2:02:49.153

Disc Size: 33,338,649,564 bytes

Feature Size: 21,915,365,376 bytes

Video Bitrate: 18.71 Mbps

Chapters: 10

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: February 18th, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec:VC-1 Video

 

Audio:

Dolby Digital Audio English 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio French 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio German 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Italian 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Japanese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Spanish 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps / Dolby Surround

 

Subtitles:

English (SDH), English, Chinese (Traditional and simplified), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, none

 

Extras:

• Audio Commentary by Microsoft Development Director Frank O'Connor & Producer Joseph Chou

• The Making of Halo Legends – in HD (54:45)

• Halo: The Story So Far – in HD (23:50)

• Halo: Gaming Evolved – in HD (21:40)

• Teaser for Halo Reach Video Game – in HD

• Trailer for Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths – in SD

 

 

The Film:

Given the commercial success of Microsoft's Halo video game franchise – some say it has kept X-Box alive in recent years – it was only a matter of time before we would see a feature film or, in this case, a direct to video movie, based on the Halo Universe. And who better to produce such a movie than the producers of Halo itself? That answer, to hear Microsoft's Joseph Chou and Bonnie Ross talk about it in the Extra Features for Halo Legends would be: any number of notable Japanese anime studios.

The American-based Halo folks would supply the basic story lines for some seven segments that would trace the origins and other pieces of the Halo mythology and each anime director (five animation studio were involved) would be more or less free to design their own artistic solution to their particular story. The music would be designed by Martin O'Donnell, but a few of the segments would incorporate original music by Japanese composers. And, in addition to the Japanese dialogue track, there would be several dubs, including, most obviously, English. There appears to be no organizing principle of production design – even the aspect ratio changes from episode to episode from 1.78 to 2.40 – relying instead on the thrust of the story, at times narrated rather than spoken by the "actors".

The Movie: 6
I gave some thought as to whether or not I should try to summarize the Halo story, and I decided against it – and for one reason: that whatever I would come up with couldn't be much more concise than the narration offered for the opening episodes – and this is, for me anyway, the rub of the project: The two "Origins" episodes especially are so bent on making certain that the story touches on every important theme and turn of events, that it kind of devolves into a series of paragraph heading or sound bites. I found this much more distressing in the English dub than in the Japanese, where I could bathe in the music of the language instead of questioning the questionable emphases offered by English actors and narrators who struck me as stock radio soap opera actors. The remaining five episodes suffer far less from this constraint.

If you are already familiar with the Halo video games, you will know that they are more military expedition obsessed than fantasy driven. Much the same is true for Legends. Every episode pits this force or warrior against another. That is the essence of Halo, though hardly unique. So, what Legends offers is seven different anime expressions of the war experience – in this way, it is rich and varied. Having recently watched New York, I Love You, it was interesting to see another movie assembled from the work of different directors. What was said about that film works here as well: if you don't particularly like the segment you're watching, stick around, another will be by in a moment.

It's hard to argue with Cortana, the A.I. narrator in "Origins" when she observes that "war is the oldest and most enduring of human practices." And later, as if speaking to Master Chief, "Like a virus, war was always lurking inside you, no matter how hard you tried to suppress it, it just fought harder to get out. It always got out." But more often, she makes one logical blunder or misrepresentation of history after another. For instance, "There has always been one truly unifying force in human history, one call that would always unite you, the emergence of a common enemy." That's just wishful thinking. There have been countless common enemies to mankind on Earth, but we, instead, have always watched out for our own interest. The truth us, that that Man has always been at the top of the food chain on his home planet and has rarely seen other agents as universally dangerous, except, perhaps, microbes. On the other hand, consider world hunger, slavery, or population explosions. Mankind has never united to defeat such scourges, which, if left unchecked, would be the ruin of us all, which makes us not only obsessed to killing other humans, but, indirectly as may be, ourselves as well. In any case, our narrator says that when the Covenant declared war on humanity, "you finally united under a single banner." Well, you can't have it both ways. Either we always united in the face of a common enemy or we didn't until the Covenant opposed us. To say that it is has "always been so" is just bad journalism

Some of Cortana's narration in "Origins" is just plain clumsy. For example, "Finally, it was over in an instant." What does that mean? The final moment of any process is instantaneous. Later she says, "The weapons you so carefully constructed to control your own baser instincts were now aimed not at yourselves but against a deadly opponent." I cannot for the life of me guess what weapons she is talking about. And later: "It is a great irony that the nature of war always reveals the true nature of those who fight?" I think I understand what she's getting at, but how does this constitute an irony? Then, she says, speaking of humanity: "In the midst of the desire to shed blood, you accidentally stumbled on the seeds of your salvation: a great hope, that you found something else as well, the seeds of your destruction." I have no idea what that means, let alone how to punctuate it. Not even the images that play across the screen shed light on what is meant here. It's just a bunch of pop-nonsense strung together that sounds like it makes sense until to you stop for a moment to ask what is actually being said – not what you think it means, or what you want it to mean, not what it almost means as the episode unfolds or what was clearer when you played the games. There's more of this misuse of logic and language than I care to relate. I guessed that if you were already familiar with the Halo mythology you might permit half your mind to fall asleep, which is understandable, perhaps even necessary.

The gods be thanked, eventually we move from the two Origins segments to five short stories, which, while they may have other problems, don't suffer nearly as much from such hackneyed writing. In any case, from "The Duel," which is fascinating and poetic on a number of levels, onward, the writing is better and the stories each more of a piece.


Image: 9/9
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

I can't say that I was very much disturbed by the way of transfer issues. However, we observe that a good third of the 50 GB disc space is unused and that the bit rate for the feature film averages only in the low 20s, which likely contributes to the occasional aliasing and banding. Blacks are awesome. Every segment is pristine, without evidence of artifacting or enhancement, as we should expect from digitally derived sources. Of course, color and contrast varies considerably with each episode, and one of them – "The Duel" – is so deliberately, though artfully blurred that it's impossible to comment beyond that. Elsewhere, lines and edges are for the most part nicely realized. Pans are smooth, and movement by figures across the frame is rarely, if ever, jerky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 6/5
First, the audio, about which we note with disgruntlement that there is no uncompressed mix to be found, not even the original Japanese. At least the six language dialogue tracks are Dolby Digital 5.1, as far as that gets us. And except for the spoken language, the music and effects are conveyed with much the same enthusiasm and clarity on both the Japanese and English tracks. I had a friend over to watch this movie, and both of us felt confident that the Japanese was somewhat better in this respect: it felt more spacious and finely textured with greater dynamic nuance. The difference between them was not nearly as it would have been if one were uncompressed, but the Japanese audio mix was preferred all the same, as was the its narration. But this latter is surely a personal choice - after all, the original game is not Japanese, nor is there is a lip synching issue for anime. Still, I felt more comfortable hearing the more straightforward Japanese narrator, whether male or female, rather than an English speaker, since he or she tends to "act" or stress words and phrases more than I feel is right for anime. Add to this that I thought some of the narration to be a kind of word salad, especially in the two Origins" segments (see my review), I thought I'd rather have it in some language other than my own.

So much for dialogue and narration. What about effects? I found them underwhelming in the big fight episodes like "Homecoming" and "The Package," but subtle and far more dynamically nuanced in "The Duel" where space was beautifully judged and given dimensionality lacking in the largely explosive episodes. In those episodes of great wartime conflict, the mix comes off flat, even when surrounds are involved. If you turn up the volume, it's loud enough, all right, but I found bass and punch held back most of the time, even during the big moments. Explosions and every sort of firepower came to have an increasingly canned feeling. I realize that none of this is supposed to be suggestive of reality, but I was hoping for something more uniquely expressive. The music, except for the mood establishing atmospherics of, for example the opening of "Origins I" and "The Duel," struck both myself and my guest as canned, unimaginative and eventually got in the way of our enjoyment of the animation (which, by the way, he liked less than I did.)

 

Operations: 8
Curiously, the menu layout is simple and graphic as opposed to animated. They are easy to understand and a breeze to use. Thanks for the "Play All" option for the making-of segments. In this mode they play through without redundant intros. English subtitles are easy to read and, I should mention, are pretty much a transcription of the English language audio track.

 

 

Extras: 8
The Special Feature exclusive to Blu-ray is titled "Halo: Gaming Evolved" which goes into the Halo Phenomenon from its inception as an X-Box video game to a full-fledged entertainment franchise. This twenty-one minute segment is presented by a host of Microsoft people whose contribution to and excitement about the game and its success is evident.

Frank O'Connor (the man who has been directing the development of the Halo franchise) and producer Joseph Chou sit with us during the entire seven episodes and talk to us, informatively and engagingly, about the series, the franchise, the stories and the anime styles represented.

"Halo: The Story So Far" is almost entirely redundant: if you watch the movie, you pretty much have seen this twenty-three minute summary presented by Microsoft Studios Author Eric Nylund, which includes a considerable number of clips from the movie.

The near one-hour making of documentary is essentially a guided tour of each of the Japanese anime studios involved, with useful comments about why this or that director was picked and how those directors or studios envisioned their contribution. Hosted by General Manager Bonnie Ross, Producer Joseph Chou, Franchise Development Director Frank O'Connor, and Executive Producer Josh Holmes. A good piece that, in its short span, is instructive about anime conceptual art.

 

 

Bottom line: 7
I'm sure I would have warmed to Halo Legends more if the audio were uncompressed, the music more imaginative, and text less declamatory. Even so, with two or three exceptions, I was not seduced by either the "screenplays" or the animation. But in the interest of full disclosure, I admit to being not big on war-based anime and even less in "if it moves, shoot it" video games Give me TV serials of Ghost in the Shell, R.O.D, Bleach, Cowboy Bebop or Paranoia Agent any day. Halo Legends does look terrific on Blu-ray even if the audio is only so-so. Recommended for Halo gamesters and addicted anime fans who can get along just fine with the sort of audio, music and text that Halo revels in.

Leonard Norwitz

February 18, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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