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The post-apocalypse, for all its downsides, looks spectacular in IMAX. The scorched but luminous earth of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion feels somehow closer to heaven than our own—a dystopia of striking beauty, shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda but designed by the director himself, a Columbia-trained architect specializing in 3D modeling. This would all be pleasant backdrop, if the story didn’t offer such clever and confident surprises. Obivion is a blockbuster of surprising vision and ambition in the Nolan/Cameron vein, and if it doesn’t answer all the questions it raises, it boasts a humanoid heart that one doesn’t always find in CGI.

The year is 2077, 60 years after a war with faceless aliens that left the earth a nuclear wasteland. “First, they took out our moon,” Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains at the outset, a merciless strike that precipitated crop decline, tsunamis, and various other miseries. Now, the detritus of the moon strafes the sky like a glimmering scar, while Harper and his partner/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) supervise the globe—a lonely task, given that all other humans have been evacuated to Titan, Saturn’s largest orbital. Harper’s brief is to maintain and repair droids, man the massive water-collecting inverted pyramids that hover over Earth’s remaining oceans, and take pot-shots at the “Scavs,” or Scavengers, those marauding aliens who resemble nothing so much as George Lucas’ Sand People in Star Wars.

But soon, Harper begins to question his “conditioning” at the hands of a suspicious comptroller in the sky named only Sally. He does daring things, reading Victorian translations of Horace and keeping a secret residence, a little hut in the jungle complete with record player and LPs (from Zeppelin to Duran Duran!). Cruise’s secret solitude flies in the face of protocol; he has been “assigned” to Victoria on the durable dystopic principle that people who are sexually satisfied and emotionally secure will function more efficiently—and perhaps be less likely to question orders coming from the space station. Nonetheless, Harper’s skepticism increases as he experiences waking dreams of a previous lover, Julia (Olga Kurylenko, a standout as ever). Once Morgan Freeman appears to offer an alternative account of earth’s demise, the third act becomes a jumpy race to the truth—eliding certain questions of memory and identity along the way, but then, Derek Parfit isn’t given a writing credit, and Oblivion works just fine without a Wachowski brothers-style expository monologue from that great voice in the sky.

In many ways, Jack Harper is the perfect latter-day role for Cruise: Harper deals with humans and machines in equal measure, and has a sneaking suspicion that he partakes in elements of each. This isn’t mere snark; as early as Risky Business, producers were alluding to Cruise as a sort of human simulacrum, and Christian Bale famously modeled his Patrick Bateman in American Psycho in part on Cruise, having apprehended a kind of moral emptiness behind Cruise’s eyes. Say what you will of his career arc, his spiritual tenets, or his height: He is uniquely convincing in the role. Oblivion is on one level a conspicuous homage, recalling by turns Vanilla Sky, The Matrix, and, especially in the beautiful first act, Star Wars. (Chatty little droids, desert long-pans, hooded villains of dubious origin watching you through steampunk binoculars, etc.) And Cruise delivers his best performance in years—call it an homage to being human. Harper’s set up like Pinocchio, but he is ineluctably a real boy, even if it takes him a long time to get there.