Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 4

Myst IV: Revelation -- Bullshit In Paradise

It makes me sad that the Myst series is so fleeting; it really does. Yeah, you can replay them after you’ve had time to forget all the puzzle solutions, but you miss the initial sense of wondrous discovery, each new Age unfolding before your big moist eyeballs. These games are so beautiful to look upon. It does give me some hope that there are current developers out there who, thanks to technological improvements and crowd-funding, can actually follow in the footsteps of Myst. This game and this other one look very promising; maybe they’ll even show some mercy to us filthy, depraved, scumbag Mac users! In the meantime, here’s Myst IV: Revelation, my personal last hurrah with the series.

So this is a damn good entry that is hurt by some huge flaws. Basically it’s just that the entire plot and all the characters suck; nothing major. Believe me, I love Revelation; I just have to accept that it faceplants when it comes to telling a compelling and non-derpy story. Hokay, so, you arrive in the Age of Tomanha to visit Atrus’s family, just like in the last game. Tomanha is now much bigger, and is a fucking dream home: a series of handsome wrought-metal buildings connected by walkways around a central lake, complete with observatory, greenhouse, kitchen/den, separate bedroom suites, and secret passages. Damn, Atrus! I guess if you can write a world into being, you can award yourself a first-class pad. Catherine is elsewhere but Atrus’s daughter, Yeesha, is around, and...ugh. Yeesha. “This franchise can totally benefit from an adorable and overly precocious child!” said no smart-thinking person ever. Yeesha (Juliette Gosselin) is about ten years old and is so cute and plucky that you can’t help but want to smack her. Plus, her dialogue is peppered with anachronisms. That’s a huge problem this game has: half the characters talk like they’re in a period costume drama and the other half use modern American slang. It is distracting as FUCK. But anywho, Atrus has to leave on some contrived business, and then you get knocked out, and when you come to, Yeesha has vanished, and...

Sigh. Okay. Spoiler alert and all that. Remember Atrus’s evil, power-hungry sons, Sirrus and Achenar? He appeared to kill them at the end of the first game. Fakeout! All he destroyed was the means of communicating with them. See, when he realized they were rotten, Atrus tricked his sons into separate Ages and trapped them there. Because Atrus makes dumbass decisions, he didn’t just stick them in the literary equivalent of a bare cell, but gave them whole expansive worlds to play around in. No way THAT could go wrong! So the cold, intelligent Sirrus (Brian Wrench) has been stranded on Spire, a floating mass of Gothic architecture, while the dumb, animalistic Achenar (Guy Sprung) was stuck in Haven, a fecund jungle realm. When we learn that Sirrus harnessed Spire’s unique anti-gravitational properties and Achenar developed a symbiosis with Haven’s ecosystem, can we truly be surprised? NICE GOING, ATRUS. You guessed it: Sirrus and Achenar have busted loose, nabbed Yeesha, and are plotting an evil plot. And only you can stop them. Lord knows Atrus is fucking useless.

The Ages of Revelation are definitely the loveliest in the series. I would kill to live in Atrus’s family home on Tomanha. Spire and Haven are unique and visually thrilling. And there’s a final Age, Serenia, that’s like the ultimate vacation spot: crystal-blue water, floating stone dolmens, friendly priestesses, whimsical flora. It’s in Serenia that Sirrus and Achenar are plotting their plot, and it’s also where the game’s story takes a detour into pure dopiness. It’s really convoluted. Multiple sharks are jumped. You have to discover your special element and charm a spirit guide, and there’s this business with a giant fungus that absorbs the memories of the dead, and then you take a trip into the Spirit Realm where you receive help from your spirit guide, who is voiced by, I kid you not, Peter Gabriel. This is’s God. I don’t know what the developers were smoking. It’s like you’re suddenly playing an entirely different game, one designed for the children of hippies. The mystical new-age bullshit just does not jive with the series as a whole. Serenia may be pretty, but I much prefer exploring Spire and Haven, gradually learning how the brothers thrived in their prisons and worked out their escape. The puzzles in Revelation are back on track in that they’re really freaking devious; Spire in particular made me pull a lot of hair out. That just makes it harder to swallow Serenia and its fucking elemental spirits. Guhhhh.

If you can swallow its dumber elements, Revelation is awesome. The gameplay is much the same, but they hand you a few new toys! There’s a steampunk camera with an attached notebook where you can jot stuff down. I’m guessing they realized that since the average Myst player takes tons of screencaps anyway (and, back in the 90s, jotted clues down on paper), they might as well build it right into the game. It makes you feel kind of like a fantasy tourist -- and, honestly, if you were able to visit and explore the Ages of Myst, wouldn’t you want a goddamn camera? Especially when any carved symbol, pattern of lights, or obscure piece of sculpture might turn out to be an all-important clue? You also get a medallion that shows you scenes from the past, mainly for exposition, but it does help shed more light on the characters and their actions. Too bad they’re all so poorly-realized. It seems that a more elaborate plot is not a plus in a Myst game. But if you can quell your cynical side, you can still enjoy the game for its elaborate puzzles and topnotch visuals. Makes you really look forward to a fifth entry!

Only...Myst V: End of Ages is a game that fills me with unhappiness, and here’s why. Because they finally did it. They decided to give the gameplay a complete overhaul. Damn them all to hell. As I said, I haven’t played Myst V. Maybe it’s fun. But it doesn’t look like a Myst game to me. Instead of wonderful, pre-rendered environments that you click your way through, End of Ages features free-roaming movement and graphics like you’d find in World of Warcraft. Instead of live-action performers, you get CGI mannequins. Even the core gameplay is way different; now you have to scrawl symbols on a magic stone tablet in order to command a race of shadow-creatures. Yeah, that’s totally a Myst game, right there. I just cannot accept such tinkering with the formula. And the thing that really saddens me is that End of Ages was, for the most part, critically applauded. Congratulated for “updating” the series and tossing out the “obsolete” aesthetic of before. Oh, so unparalleled visual beauty in games is obsolete, huh? Fuck you. Fuck you in the tonsils. I’m not gonna say that I will never play the fifth and final Myst game, but I will say that it offends me on a primal level. The series deserved a better cap-off.

The first four games are all very good, though. Truly a one-of-a-kind franchise that was lucky enough to find a willing audience. That audience hasn’t ever gone extinct, believe me. Mysterious, contemplative, violence-free games still have a place. I’m going to continue this review series by looking at other games that I feel are spiritual descendants of Myst. Just a couple for now, but there may be more off in the future. As long as gamemakers dare to dream, I guess.

Myst Review Series

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 3

Myst III: Exile -- Hey! Teacher! Leave Those D’ni Alone!

2001. I was not in any way expecting a third game in the Myst series, because I’d read an interview with Rand and Robyn Miller and they were like, “Yeah, no, Riven is the last one.” Out of the blue, a friend of mine mentioned to me that he’d seen Myst III was out, and I was all like, “bullSHIT.” Then I went to Staples and saw that he was right, and on the spot, I convinced my mother to buy me the game as an early birthday present. I was an only child, so I got away with that kind of shit. You can’t imagine how thrilled I was to discover a new Myst game. But it was my favorite kind of enthusiasm, the cautious kind. The game had been made by a new studio with little input from the original creators (although Rand Miller did return, probably with a long-suffering sigh, to play Atrus). The screenshots on the box looked awesome, but would the game be worthy of its pedigree, or would it dumb the series down? Or bloody it up?

My verdict is that Myst III: Exile is not as good as Riven, largely because it did what Riven was careful not to do: it just copied Myst. That said, Exile is still very good. It finally updated the gameplay somewhat! The biggest addition was a 360-degree camera; you still move by fading from one scene to the next like a ghost, but you can look all around you at any point and even rotate the view while being talked at by characters in cutscenes. This allows the game to show off its awesome graphics (actual moving clouds!) and ambient sound design. I say, thank God the new developers improved on what was already good in the series, rather than trying to reinvent it. In terms of its puzzles, Exile is considerably easier than Riven (or seemed that way; maybe I’d just gotten older and smarter). Once again, you’re visiting an episodic series of Ages, each of them an isolated island in the midst of an endless ocean. However, the creative team behind the game clearly threw their minds into the process, broadening the possibilities of what comprised an Age of Myst and giving us some striking images.

How to continue the story? Spoiler alert: at the end of Riven, the Stranger (you) is sent home, your work in the Ages complete. The makers of Exile chose to ignore this and pretend you and Atrus have remained buddies this whole time. As the new game opens, you drop by to visit Atrus and Catherine, who now live in a world called Tomanha. You’re there to make goo-goo noises at their new baby daughter, but also to check out the cool new Age that Atrus has written. A little backstory: Atrus is a member of the D’ni (pronounced “Dunny”), an advanced society that was all but wiped out in a great apocalypse. Atrus has been working to build a fresh place for the remaining D’ni, and now he’s successfully installed them in the sparkly new Age of Releeshahn. But before he can show you, a scary-looking chap appears in Atrus’s study, starts a fire, and absconds with the book containing Releeshahn. And that man is...Brad Dourif.

Yes, motherfucking Brad Dourif. I guess if you wanna prove your sequel is legit, you hire a character actor with serious geek cred. Whether you think of him as Chucky the doll, Wormtongue, or the telepathic creep in that one X-Files episode, Brad Dourif never fails to be awesome onscreen. So you chase Brad through yet another book and find yourself in an Age called J’nanin, a ring of rock with a central crater lake and giant ivory tusks sprouting here and there. You gradually learn that Atrus made this world for one purpose: teaching his sons, Sirrus and Achenar. Yes, in a move that would’ve granted him the title of “Coolest Dad Ever” if his kids hadn’t been utter shitheads, Atrus wrote a series of Ages that Sirrus and Achenar could play around in, learning the ups and downs of the art. In other words, there is a full-blown reason for why the Ages are full of bizarre, Rube Goldberg puzzles. You’re going back to school! Four other “Lesson Ages” await: Voltaic (a red Martian landscape scarred by machinery), Edanna (a tropical paradise inside a tree trunk), Amateria (basically a giant, awesome gravitram), and finally, Narayan, a smoggy place that contains an actual human society. Or it used to; Atrus intended Narayan to be the final lesson for his sons, but didn’t realize that Sirrus and Achenar were greedy, power-hungry sociopaths who proceeded to fuck Narayan to shit and drive its people to near-extinction. Saavedro (Brad Dourif’s character) was the chief of the Narayan people, survived their genocide, and, as you may imagine, bears a HUGE fucking grudge. Since Sirrus and Achenar are gone, Saavedro is focusing his wrath on Atrus, forcing him to puzzle through his own worlds if he wants to save the D’ni. Of course, Saavedro doesn’t know that you, not Atrus, have pursued him. D’oh!

Now that I’ve thrown a bunch of kooky made-up words at you...does this plot work? Actually, it works very well indeed. One theme that runs through the Myst franchise is Atrus’s ethical dilemma. Does he have the right to play God, even a benevolent God? What are the ramifications of writing a sentient people into existence? Saavedro is like a Lucifer, rebelling against his very creator, but look how much the poor man has suffered because his creator wasn’t paying attention! Saavedro is, no joke, the strongest character in the Myst series. He’s extremely intelligent and resourceful (he basically had to hack Atrus’s worlds for his own purposes), but also demented from his long years of being alone. He wavers between volcanic fury and Shakespearean pathos, and Brad Dourif turns in one hell of a performance; although his Virginian accent is distracting, he imbues Saavedro with a cocktail of intense emotions that make him riveting to watch. You both fear him and fear for him, and the final showdown with him on Narayan is tense as fuck. It leads to several possible endings, some of which involve you getting an axe to the head. But the happy endings, well...I won’t spoil them, but there are two, and the difference between them is Saavedro’s ultimate fate. In order to achieve the best resolution, you must do something that you are very rarely asked to do in video games. If you do it, you get a payoff that hits you right in the heart. Kudos.

So this game’s story rocks, although the gameplay is a teeny bit weaker. As I said, the puzzles aren’t too difficult, and it seems like some complexity was sacrificed in the name of creative tinkering. The Age of Edanna, for instance, is luscious: no machines, nothing man-made, just a profusion of strange plants and animals that you can bend to your will. But the concept can’t support the puzzles, which tend to consist of poking things in the right order. Voltaic’s puzzles are stronger but a bit confusing, and the Age suffers from boring visuals. Amateria, on the other hand, boasts both awesome visuals and really neat puzzles (except for one involving counterweight that I have never figured out and always have to cheat on). And they pull a dick move with the final puzzles on Narayan, which you can’t possibly solve without looking through a seemingly unimportant journal you’ve had since the beginning. The brain-busting part of the game is all over the map, and although it’s more forgiving than Riven, it also feels uneven in tone. So that’d be my one quibble.

Otherwise, Exile is a strong entry in the series, proving that there were more stories to tell. Once again, I didn’t pay attention for awhile, and the next thing I knew, Myst IV and Myst V existed. Next up: the final game in the franchise that I have actually played, and the reason why I don’t feel a huge need to continue.

Myst Review Series

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 2

Riven -- One Nation, Under Gehn

Remember how Portal was made by a few people with a teeny budget, and then when it became more popular than breathing, the makers got massive amounts of manpower and money to craft Portal 2? Yeah, it’s all happened before. Nobody expected Myst to be a landmark of gaming, and you can bet that Cyan and the Miller brothers basically had a blank check on the sequel, which went into production very quickly. It took about four years to make the second game, Riven, and damned if the time and effort don’t show in the end result. Riven was the best-selling computer game of 1997. Can you even imagine a game that doesn’t have any guns being the top performer in any given year? (Actually, someone uses a blowgun in Riven, so never mind.) The great thing is, its success is deserved. I firmly believe that Riven is the strongest game in the Myst series. It may lack the amazing graphics and gameplay improvements of the next couple entries, but it feels the most whole in terms of story, puzzles, and experience. Unlike Myst, Riven still stands up today. More or less.

The game begins with Atrus, the somber dude who created the worlds of Myst, asking a wee favor from you. Nothing much: just go to a dangerous, decaying world and capture a powerful god-tyrant with nothing but a booby-trapped book. No biggie. The world is Riven, and the bad guy is an elderly chap named Gehn who’s turned Riven into his personal laboratory. Atrus is totally guilty of the same thing, but the catch is, Riven is home to an indigenous culture who live under Gehn’s cruel thumb and feed victims to hungry whale-monsters in his name. Gehn is forcing the Rivenese to emulate his own white-dude culture in a move that is clearly not symbolic of anything. There’s an underground resistance movement, and one of its leaders is Atrus’s wife, Catherine, currently MIA. Oh, and Gehn is Atrus’s father. Because of course he is. What is up with this family? So you have to explore Riven, avoid Gehn’s cronies, capture Gehn somehow, find Catherine, and then signal Atrus so he can get everyone the hell out before Riven falls completely to pieces. TALL FUCKING ORDER, ATRUS.

Hey, it’s way more of a plot than the first game had. It’s really nice that they weren’t content to just remake Myst with different worlds; they wanted the sequel to stand proudly on its own. For most of the game, you’re just in the one Age, which is divided into several islands. It’s an austere place of rock and ruin; most of its natural beauty has been spoilt by Gehn’s meddling. But even the artificial has beauty. A vast golden dome containing a watery power plant. Opulent temples where the hapless natives can worship at the Altar of Gehn. An underwater trolley system and a dizzying skyrail. Speaking of water, the stuff has rather unusual properties in Riven; it doesn’t always obey the laws of physics. On one island (my favorite), you find a gigantic topographical map made of water, that you can control from on high. Despite its weirdness, Riven feels more like a real world than anything in Myst. Not only are there actual people (who live in neat gourd-shaped houses), but you encounter plenty of local wildlife too. Even the native critters are part of the puzzle. Everything is, really.

Ahh, the puzzles. They are FUCKING DIABOLICAL. Some people actually complained at how difficult Riven was, and when I first played it, I freely admit to purchasing the strategy guide. In Myst, each puzzle was pretty much self-contained, especially between the different Ages. In Riven, practically everything is connected. Puzzles stretch across the game in layer upon layer, gradually taking shape as you amass clues that you must somehow fit together. You have to pay attention to the native wildlife, to the local numerical system, to the position of certain landmarks on the islands, to colors and sounds and patterns and other things that you wouldn’t normally consider important. Thankfully, there are real reasons behind some of the puzzles (for instance, the rebels want to make their hideout hard to find, so they create a system of secret signs to point new recruits in the right direction). Yes, things in Riven have an actual point beyond merely existing, and it adds to the overall richness of playing it. Once you start making connections and seeing them pay off, the feeling of satisfaction is incredible. I really wish I could wipe my memory of the game, then go back and replay it without cheating. Payoffs rarely cause a bigger endorphin rush; it’s way cooler to feel really smart than to feel like you can shoot the most bullets.

It’s a great, great game that improves on Myst in almost every way. If it has flaws, it’s the stuff that it wasn’t able to improve. You’re still stuck in a slideshow format, viewing the game one static shot at a time. There’s still a sense of disconnection with the characters; you have to stand there motionless as they perform a skit and then vanish offscreen so you can move again. This was forgivable in Myst because there were only three people in the game besides yourself, and they were trapped inside freaking books. In Riven, with its more dynamic plot and larger cast, it’s distracting and unreal that you can’t interact with them in any tangible way. Myst seemed groundbreaking in 1993, but four years later, realistic 3D graphics and real-time navigation had become the norm, and critics questioned why Riven was sticking to such an archaic form of gameplay. It was certainly acclaimed, but with the caveat that maybe the series needed to keep up with the times. Assuming there would be more.

Heh. Of course there would be more. Riven marked the end of the “original” series as created by Cyan. Rand and Robyn Miller split to pursue separate projects, and neither one had any real intention of continuing the series that put them on the map. They closed the book: Riven has a satisfying ending, which Myst utterly lacked. But the franchise still existed, and as long as gamers liked it, somebody or other was gonna make more sequels. But without the original creative minds, WOULD THEY BE ANY GOOD?

They would. Stay tuned!

Myst Review Series

Monday, May 20, 2013

Myst Series, pt. 1

Myst -- The World Between the Pages

If I haven’t made it utterly clear by now, I’m a pretty high-minded gamer. Few of my favorite games are purely brainless; even if I’m gonna paint the walls with bad guy intestines, it has to be nuanced and interesting, like Resident Evil 4. And I gravitate more toward games that make you think rather than kill. Games with meaning. Games with artistry. So if you asked me, What type of game would you make if you had the ability, time, and resources, and you weren’t worried about mere commercial success? I wouldn’t even hesitate. I’d point at the Myst series.

This retrospective is doomed to be incomplete, I’m afraid. I’ve never played Myst V and everything about it looks awful and misguided; I may discuss why in a later review. And I never tried Uru: Ages Beyond Myst because it’s Windows only; fuck you, developers. But I’ve played and loved the first four games in the series. And I’m also going to drag in a couple more recent games that aren’t directly related to Myst but are, I feel, worthy successors. Myst had a big influence on gaming in general, and even though violence-free puzzlers remain within a niche, they’ve never died out completely. Note that Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is being trumpeted as part of the PS4’s launch lineup. The legacy lives on. So where did it begin?

It began in a manner that’s become the norm for indie games: with a handful of people sitting in someone’s home, building their idea from scratch. The company, Cyan, had been around for a little while, but Myst was its first significant effort, and the Cyan team -- headed by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller -- had to improvise like crazy. This was back in the early 1990s, I was barely out of toddlerhood, and the idea of a fully 3D world that you could actually move around in was pretty damn innovative. There already was a puzzle/adventure genre -- games where you couldn’t die, and where everything revolved around working your brainbox -- but Myst forced the concept into a very interesting evolution. Mysterious and open-ended, the game sucked people in. You weren’t playing as a particular were just you. There were no monsters and hardly any other people. It was a difficult game -- at the time, anyway -- but it tossed out the concept of “losing.” There was always a way through, something you’d overlooked or not thought of, but since the internet as we know it didn’t exist, you couldn’t cheat and look up the answers. You had to experiment, pay attention, be patient, and think think THINK. Small wonder that the gaming world flipped its shit, some calling Myst a failed experiment, but most hailing it as something new and groundbreaking that deserved way more attention.

The world is iconic: Myst Island, a place of solitude where you, the player (or “Stranger”) are dumped after picking up a weathered old book and finding a portal within its pages. Someone lived here, but they don’t seem to any more. The island is very small, but covered in what looks like the results of obsessive industry and tinkering. There’s a sunken ship, an underground generator, a hilltop observatory, a clocktower, what looks suspiciously like a rocket ship, and even a library. A library where most of the books have been destroyed. Within two of the few intact tomes, you discover living men -- prisoners, gazing out at you and pleading for release. Should you trust them? Eventually, you figure out that the island was home to a man named Atrus (played by co-creator Rand Miller) who, it seems, held the power to write a world on paper and literally step inside it. The two trapped men are his sons, arrogant Sirrus and demented Achenar. At least one of the two is guilty of terrible things. But which one? If you can crack the puzzles of Myst Island, you unlock the way to four other worlds, or Ages: Selenitic (a fire-blasted landscape where ambient sounds play a huge role), Stoneship (a sailing vessel fused to a rocky islet), Mechanical (a rotating steampunk fortress), and Channelwood (a treehouse-choked forest growing from the sea). Each Age has more puzzles and more insights into Atrus’s sons, and you find loose pages that you can shove into the books that imprison them. Enough pages, and one brother will be freed. Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t trust either brother one bit.

The mystery of the game is timeless and it’s certainly respected, but does it hold up? Well, from a purely technical standpoint, it’s obsolete by now. As its harshest critics never tired of pointing out, it was a glorified slideshow where you were locked into a single viewpoint and couldn’t move at all when a Quicktime movie occurred. (On the plus side, the characters were played by live-action dudes on greenscreen, which added a lot.) The original 3D graphics look crude today, although the game did get at least one shiny visual facelift during its string of re-releases. Make no mistake, this game is weak compared to most of its sequels; it may have been challenging at the time, but it’s pretty damn short once you take out all the hours spent not knowing what the fuck to do next. The puzzles operate under typically arbitrary logic: rotate the tower so it points at the sunken ship, then look on the metal plaque to get three dates, then enter the dates into the control panel in the planetarium to get three astrological signs, then look in the Stoneship book to figure out what the signs represent, then hit the corresponding symbols on the stone pillars to make the ship float again! These sorts of puzzles have been done in countless games since. It’s a pity: games like the Myst series appeal to a fairly small demographic, and those who like the games have become too damn good at them., Myst doesn’t really hold up, and the only reason to replay it is for nostalgia. For the zen of redoing something that takes little to no effort.

Still, the appeal of Myst cannot be denied, if only because it was never intended to be such a success. I mean, the guys who made it were just messing around, seeing what they could come up with. I remember watching a little “making of” featurette that came on the game disc; did you know that the gurgling water sound effects in some areas were created by the sound guy using a straw to blow bubbles in a toilet? It wasn’t just that Myst wasn’t quite like anything anyone had ever seen before. It wasn’t even that it proved you could make money on a peaceful, thoughtful computer game. It was that suddenly, game development wasn’t like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wasn’t a distant, alien process that only Japanese savants could comprehend. You could do it in your garage with some buddies, if you were willing to put in the time and effort. You could make something really cool and share it with the world. And now we have Braid, Limbo, World of Goo, and countless others. Would they exist if Myst hadn’t proven that you could think small and still make a quality game? Or that there were gameplay and storytelling possibilities that no one had thought to tap? Maybe. Even so...Myst really did open a portal to another world, in more ways than one. And its success ensured that it was just the beginning.

Myst Review Series

Monday, May 6, 2013

To Squee Or Not To Squee: Oblivion

I’m on a Cautious Enthusiasm roll!

It’s the dawn of the summer blockbuster season and I just watched Oblivion, which is probably out now because it’s not quite dumb enough to compete with whichever giant robots or superhero bros are vying for our ticket money this year. Oblivion turned out to be way better than I figured it’d be, while not quite reaching that golden plateau of brilliance attained by, say, Blade Runner or Minority Report. The trailer for Oblivion really piqued my interest, but it also seemed to give away most of the plot. I’m very happy to say that the actual film is, if not terribly original, a lot more complex and head-fucky than I expected. So kudos!

I’ll spoil as little as I can. Tom Cruise narrates endlessly at the start of Oblivion, and there’s a lot to ingest. Sixty years ago (in the movie’s timeline), hostile aliens arrived on Earth. Their plan was ingeniously nasty: they blew up the moon, turned the planet into a Roland Emmerich movie, then moved in after our shit had been ruined. We won the war in the end, but Earth was left a largely irradiated wasteland. Now the remnants of humanity live in a floating space station, and are in the process of moving to Saturn’s moon, Titan. We’ve built massive power-plant doohickeys to suck the last resources from the oceans, but they’re in danger from the few aliens still skulking about. The doohickeys are defended by trigger-happy robotic drones, which are in turn cared for by Jack Harper (Cruise), a handyman who commutes to the planet’s surface every day from his sleek, photogenic sky-penthouse, where he enjoys sleek, photogenic sex with his mission partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They’re pretty much the last people on Earth, and soon they will leave as well. That’s the premise -- or, at least, the supposed premise.

It’s hardly surprising to learn that Jack and Victoria had memory wipes prior to their mission.  There has not been a single movie in this genre where the initial premise is the absolute truth, nor a single male protagonist who starts out the movie schtupping the woman he’s truly meant to be with. Sure enough, Jack dreams about another woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he remembers but can’t put a name to. When he meets his mystery lady face to face, it’s under surprising circumstances: she’s in a cryo-pod, which is in a pre-war ship that crashes on Earth, and Jack has to save her from being charbroiled by the very robots he takes care of. Now isn’t that strange. The trailers give away some of what happens next, including that there are still humans living on Earth (hey, you get Morgan Freeman for a movie, you damn well let people know) and that Jack and Victoria’s largely unseen superiors may have a sinister agenda. But I’m leaving out four or five twists that are quite effective, if derivative. The movie is strongest when it’s exploring the mysteries of its plot, gradually unpacking one truth after another. As we expect, Jack is soon at odds with Victoria and must Question All He Ever Knew and blah blah blah. But it’s harder than you might think to guess the next direction the plot will take. I like it! It’s cobbled together from other sci-fi films, but at least it doesn’t insult the intelligence.

I can forgive a lot if a movie looks good, and Oblivion looks fantastic; I adored its depiction of an utterly ruined Earth, in part because it dared to make the devastation beautiful. This future world is composed of vast peaks and bleak, endless barrens, and the remains of buildings and towers and ships look like some kind of dreamlike abstract sculpture (I do have to laugh, however, at the sheer durability of famous national landmarks; way too many of the landscape shots have some iconic building or monument to ID.) By contrast, Cruise and Riseborough get to lounge around in their swank glass eyrie (probably designed by Apple) and Cruise pilots a nifty gyroscopic aircraft that totally looks like a cock and balls, but what can ya do? The musical score is also fantastic, if a bit relentless at times. I’d love the film way more if it were just the surreal special effects and the cryptic plot, but there are also token action scenes, and like I feared, they’re annoying. Oh, they’re done very well, but they make a jarring contrast to the rest of the film. There’s one foe that Cruise has to battle repeatedly (to describe it would be a spoiler), and his smackdowns with said foe get predictable, especially since it has the type of big glowing weak spot you see in video games.

Also, stronger characters would’ve been nice. Cruise is as watchable as ever (Jesus, he’s really fifty?), but he’s playing the role he’s most comfortable with: an action everyman who can be our blank slate. Morgan Freeman, likewise, plays the same damn part he always plays. Olga Kurylenko’s character is a weak link; although she has one effective scene of powerful emotional revelation, she’s just The Woman, and the job of The Woman is to look lovely and concerned while standing slightly behind and to the right of The Hero. Her mystery lady disappears behind the mystery. I was way more invested in Andrea Riseborough’s Victoria, who, in terms of her motives and character arc (again, no spoilers) is a tragic figure indeed. Finally, Melissa Leo does good work as the slightly-too-upbeat talking head from Mission Control who appears on Victoria’s monitor, but since we just know she’s gonna be an antagonist, we can’t feel much for her. There are, shall we say, potential reasons for some of the characters to be thinly defined; for once, it may actually be appropriate for the plot to dominate the cast. But our emotions are kept at bay, and the ending is a rather annoying cop-out. Yay, says the studio, we managed to wrangle a happy ending from all this! Yeah, but happy on a very false note.

I do recommend Oblivion. Fans of sci-fi will not be disappointed, though they may be checking off all the other films that this one borrows stuff from. I enjoyed it enough to want to see it again, maybe even own it. And I’d be happy if they made a sequel, possibly dealing with certain of the characters struggling to find their place in the current world (yet again, no spoilers, but Victoria really ought to be the main protagonist of the follow-up). It was a good film to see on an otherwise quiet Sunday, and a good take on the postapocalypse. There’s even a dog! Because we all know dogs in movies can survive the end of the world. Guys, if aliens invade and blow up the moon and all, find a cute dog and fucking STICK with it.

VERDICT: Sure, I’ll give it a squee. A squee for effort.