A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2021

FINCH jjj
 

2021, PG-13, 115 mins.

Tom Hanks as Finch  /  Caleb Landry Jones as Jeff

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik  /  Written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell

ORIGINAL FILM

Is it possible to make a good feel-good post-apocalyptic movie? 

After watching the new AppleTV+ original film FINCH I'm inclined to say yes.  

This film is set in a horribly inhospitable post-apocalyptic future that just so happens to star one of our most likeable and dependable of actors in Tom Hanks, who - believe it or not - is making just his second sci-fi film appearance here of his career (after 2012's CLOUD ATLAS).  FINCH is a weird piece of hybrid cinema, to say the least: It functions as a strangely compelling odd couple/road trip comedy between a man and the robot companion that he created that just so happens to be set it a nightmarishly atmospheric dystopia that has had large segments of the human race destroyed by a world devastating solar flare.  Oh, there's also a cute doggie supporting character that's here and along for ride as well.  On paper, no one is going to consider this the second coming of THE ROAD, but I don't think that FINCH is aiming for that level of oppressive bleakness.  The film tells a touching and more gentle story that managed to emotionally resonate with me more than I was expecting going in. 

This is also a film that seems like a meta commentary on some of Hanks' own classic and iconic films of the past.  His character being completely alone and isolated on a ravaged Earth and being forced to survive on his own will have many of his fans thinking about his Oscar nominated turn in CASTAWAY.  The fact that his character here has a cute pooch sidekick will have many fondly recalling TURNER AND HOOCH.  Then there are the references to other past sci-fi films outside of Hanks' own filmography.  A character living alone and with a canine echoes I AM LEGEND, and one of the robot companions here is dubbed Dewey as an obvious nod to another android in SILENT RUNNING, with its appearance - and the look of the ozone damaged Earth of tomorrow - baring a fleeting resemblance to the titular character and world of WALL-E.  But I don't think that director Miguel Sapochnik (REPO MEN) and screenwriters Craig Luck and Ivor Powell are lazily cherry picking elements from other films and trying to shoehorn them altogether here in hopes of making them stick.  Many of the beats of FINCH and the world building and character dynamics are familiar, but somehow and someway this film just has its own unique charm and nifty tricks ups its sleeve. 

And the world of FINCH is bleaker than bleak, to say the least.  It presents a near future where a massive solar flare utterly decimated the ozone layer and is now frying just about anything that's exposed outside (at a daytime temperature of 150 degrees, human flesh starts to burn and sizzle in seconds, making the lives of any human survivor that wasn't killed by this event already a literal living hell).  Scorched by UV radiation and unpredictable weather events, existing outside and without protection has become next to impossible.  One lone survivor, Finch Weinberg (Hanks), is an ex-robotic engineer that has lost everything and now lives alone in his St. Louis (well, what's left of it) underground lab with two non-human loyal companions: His dog Goodyear and his dog-like fetch robot in the aforementioned Dewey that helps him on scavenge missions on the outside.  Finch is forced to wear a UV and heat protective suit any time while venturing outside, and in the opening of the film we see him and Dewey exploring the hellscape that is St. Louis in search of supplies.  It all looks like a living nightmare, but it's pretty clear that this is not Finch's first trip outside; he sings to lyrics of AMERICAN PIE to himself as nonchalantly as any normal person would while going on a grocery run.

 

 

When not outside looking for survival gear, parts, and supplies in general (not to mention food), Finch spends most of his days engineering a new A.I. companion (and body for it) that he hopes will replace Dewey.  He scans countless books and documents to feed into the A.I.'s brain (later to be dubbed as "Jeff"), but news soon comes of a horrendously massive storm that looks to destroy and kill anything left in Finch's home city.  Realizing that he can't stay, Finch opts to gather up everything and plan a long and arduous trip to the much safer San Francisco, where he hopes that he and his robot BFFs will be safe and sound.  There's some obvious problems early on.  Firstly, Jeff's new robot body has not been perfected, not to mention that Finch only had time to upload 70-ish per cent of encyclopedia knowledge into his manufactured young brain, meaning that when Jeff comes to mental and physical life he'll have the mind and motor skills of a child.  

Knowing that time is of the essence, Finch gives Jeff (in motion capture and voice form provided by Caleb Landry Jones) a crash course on walking and speaking.  They don't have much time, though, which forces Finch to gather up his team and leave rather quickly in their solar panel powered RV that he hopes will get them across a destroyed America as quickly as possible.  Predictably, Jeff is a hopeless greenhorn when it comes to basic interaction (he possesses book knowledge, yes, but needs help on the social/communication front).  On top of that, Finch's own health is sharply deteriorating due to radiation sickness, meaning that he just may have to rely on Jeff to drive and perform other tasks along the way.  This all leads to a particularly challenging ordeal for Finch to teach Jeff how to be a function in more legitimately human ways to be better suited to look after Finch and Goodyear when the former gets too sick to do so himself. 

Again, this might be a kinder, tamer, more PG-13-ified take on well worn material, but FINCH really does a bravura job of immersing viewers in its apocalyptic world that's anything but inviting.  Right from the opening scenes in the film, both Sapochnik and cinematographer Jo Willems ground us in the sun drenched and sand covered locations of St. Louis to sell the horrendous levels of environmental decay that has hit the world.  And when the insanely hot temperatures are not brutal enough, we get unpredictable fluctuations in the weather, which can go from relatively calm to spontaneously produced tornados in mere minutes, threatening Finch and company at any waking moment.  There's a sensationally frightening moment during a particularly violent storm that forces Finch and Jeff to winch tie their vulnerable RV down to the ground with metal cables and spikes in fear of it being taken up by the roaring winds and being surely destroyed.  Very few RV road trips in movie history have been as risky as the one presented here; FINCH portrays an endlessly intimidating world that can kill you in countless different ways. 

Yet, this film, amazingly enough, never wallows in abject pain and misery.  There's a journey of personal discovery here for Finch and Jeff that mirrors their literal one to California, during which time he has to learn to trust his infant minded robot buddy with tending to his needs moving forward while Jeff has to learn the ropes of survival and friendship in a rather quick amount of time.  And Jeff's brain is like a toddler in terms of it being a sponge that absorbs information and stimuli by the minute - some that he understands easily, whereas others he fails to comprehend.  There are obvious echoes to the story of Pinocchio on display throughout FINCH in the way it observes the creator teaching its creation to act and behave like a real person, with obvious stumbling blocks along the way (in one of the film's many humorous sequences, Finch tries to teach Jeff how to drive, which his A.I. programming doesn't completely take like a duck to water).  Finch, rather wisely, ensures that a vital part of Jeff's programming does not harm humans and, in turn and most importantly, dogs.  Finch's days are numbered, but like all good pet owners (apocalypse or not), he wants to ensure that his furry companion is tended to after he's gone. 

One of the main reasons why it becomes so easy to invest in these characters is that the performances here are so well articulated and dialed in to help sell this odd fellowship between man and machine.  Finch as a character doesn't place large demands on Hanks as a performer, but that doesn't mean that he phones it in here either.  Hanks is tasked with not appearing opposite of any other human actor on-screen here, and he thanklessly portrays Finch as a man driven by sheer determination and will to survive while also showcasing him as someone that's also frail and vulnerable and realizes that his best days are behind him.  And as the story progresses and more dreadful obstacles get thrown at him you begin to gain a sense of just how badly years of isolation have plagued this man.  Working equally as well opposite of him is Jones, who's tasked with the daunting challenge of playing a robot (just consider the litany of movie robots over the decades) and imparting some freshness of approach and personality here.  One of FINCH's most touching aspects is being an observer of Jeff's transition from a clumsy and awkward minded piece of tech to a being that becomes more self-aware and intuitively human.  There have been frankly too many films to count that have centered on the relationship between humans and robots, to be fair, but FINCH makes its core relationship arc quite authentically rendered and surprisingly moving.  There's a small moment between Jeff and Goodyear that will make you simultaneously cheer and cry, especially if you're a dog lover/owner. 

But, uh huh, FINCH is definitely cuddlier with the underlining material than some might expect (or like) going in.  I mean, it features one of the more adored actors of his generation trekking across the country with his homemade robot and adorable dog.  It's all rather cozy and quaint and on a superficial level, FINCH is the closet thing we'll ever get to comfort food for the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre.  Yet, I found myself deeply invested in the journey this film took me on and all of its awe inspiring wonders and hazardous dangers.  And I appreciated how sincerely contemplative the screenplay was in developing the father/son relationship between Finch and Jeff, especially in the way it tackles ideas about parenthood, imparting wisdom down onto children (even if they're made of mental and bolts), and what true responsibility means in a world permeated by endless despair.  And I was genuinely touched by this film (especially in the final sections) that pulls all of this thematic material together in a richly satisfying way, and that's simply something that I can't say about many recent sci-fi outings.  As far as doomsday stories go, FINCH isn't as stomach churningly visceral as many others out there, but I just don't think that this was the ultimate end game.  All in all, it's amazing that this film dramatically works as exceedingly well as it does despite the obvious softening of its genre edges.

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