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‘Finch’ Review: Tom Hanks, a Dog, and One of the Best Movie Robots Ever Fuel a Sweet Post-Apocalyptic Road Trip

Caleb Landry Jones' hilarious and heartfelt motion-capture performance as a robot named Jeff is one of the movie year's biggest surprises.



Even now, after surviving for more than 100 years and almost as many supposed deaths, the movies are still full of surprises. I submit to you the following as further proof of that phenomenon: At a time when feature-length sci-fi is dominated by franchise spectacle, someone made a tender, quiet, and terrifically affecting post-apocalyptic drama in which Tom Hanks plays a dying engineer named Finch Weinberg who builds a robot to care for his rescue dog once he’s gone. That isn’t the strange part. No, the strange part is that Finch’s creation — a sentient, Hertzfeldian nine-foot can opener who dubs himself “Jeff” after his AI formatting is interrupted by the superstorm that sends this story on a road trip from St. Louis to San Francisco — is voiced and motion-captured by king weirdo Caleb Landry Jones, an actor who’s always seemed more alien than android. He nevertheless (or directly because of that) delivers a heartfelt and consistently hilarious performance that elevates Jeff alongside the likes of Gort, R2-D2, and Fritz Lang’s Maschinemensch in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest full metal characters. In a film that’s refreshingly short on twists, that’s one thing this critic never saw coming.

Jones notwithstanding, Miguel Sapochnik’s “Finch” only deviates from expectations by doing exactly what it promises from the outset. Finch is introduced to us in full “I Am Legend” mode as he and his WALL-E-esque prototype Dewey search the ruins of Missouri for sustenance and spare parts, but there aren’t any supernatural dangers lurking in the shadows outside of our hero’s tank-like RV. There aren’t any computer-generated zombies biding their time until nightfall. There aren’t any grandiose depictions of the solar flare that turned the ozone layer into Swiss cheese, rendered the sunlight harsh enough to burn the skin off someone’s bones, and left a resourceful introvert as one of the last men on Earth (Finch was lucky enough to be at his bunker-like robotics lab when the world ended, though it’s unclear how many others managed to survive).

There’s just a lonely guy in his mid-60s who coughs blood into his beard, listens to a salvaged LP of “American Pie” whenever he gets sad, and may not be around much longer to look after the cute dog he adopted sometime after its owners died. (Goodyear is played from start to finish by a single, very un-starstruck mutt named Seamus.) When St. Louis is threatened by a biblical weather system, Finch is suddenly forced to relocate the family he’s manufactured for himself as he speeds west in the hope that he can make it to safety — and teach Jeff how to forage, drive, and play fetch — by the time his radiation poisoning gets the better of him.

That’s pretty much all there is to it, which helps to explain why Universal had so little confidence in the movie’s theatrical prospects that the studio offloaded the finished product to Apple TV+ during the pandemic. It’s possible that a weightier take on this material could’ve worked the prestige angle à la “Castaway,” or that a bigger one — complete with shocking reveals, sinister antagonists, or even just a second human character of any kind — might have been able to position itself as a modest blockbuster of sorts, but the script that Craig Luck and “Blade Runner” associate producer Ivor Powell managed to extrapolate from the former’s short film has no such ambitions. On the contrary, “Finch” is a humble story about someone clinging to purpose in a world beyond salvation or the false urgency of plot; it’s a touching fable about a guy who shows a robot that life is still worth savoring even after the end times or without any greater cause, and anything that pulled focus from that stubborn little ember of hope would have cheated this movie out of its muted power.

Which isn’t to suggest that Sapochnik — who made his bones helming several of the most epic and graceful episodes of “Game of Thrones” and displays a similar knack for grounding high-concept images with the clean simplicity of his direction here — has crafted some kind of audience-resistant art film that subverts Hanks’ universal appeal. Again, this is a movie about a nice (if somewhat agitated) man who has dedicated the latter part of his adult life to giving belly scratches and building cute robots, but it wouldn’t work if the latter didn’t.

Dewey sets the tone as the first of Finch’s manufactured friends. An articulating arm that’s attached to a metal cube on wheels, the prototype is lovable despite being only lightly anthropomorphized, and the decision to cast him as a 100-percent practical animatronic makes it that much easier for your eyes to accept that Jeff is just as real (Jones’ on-set motion-capture work and top-notch CGI help to complete the illusion). From the moment Finch powers him up, there isn’t a doubt in your mind. In fact, Jeff is so tactile and endearing that a more adorable design might have risked a kind of overkill; essentially an oblong, gourd-like orange cushion affixed with two protruding camera eyes and squished on top of a giant chassis of exposed titanium joints, Finch’s magnum opus doesn’t seem like the solution to all his problems so much as a robot Cousin Greg who’s been programmed with Asimov’s Three Laws plus a prime directive to “protect dog above all else.” He can only be loved for his potential.

Jeff’s data is only 72 percent uploaded when Finch and the gang are forced to flee the Show Me state, which leaves the robot equipped with an entire Wikipedia of worthless factoids but only a child’s understanding of what they mean, and so he quickly becomes the large adult mecha son that Finch never had (our man was a loner even in the before times, thanks in part to some too-vague daddy issues that are confined to a monologue at the end of the second act). It’s hard to overstate the furtive joy of Jones’ performance, or how perfectly he threads the needle between cuteness and chaos, but suffice it to say that Chappie walked so that Jeff could… walk more awkwardly. And reverse Finch’s RV into a wall. And generally cause two new problems for each solution he provides.

Jones embodies Jeff with an innocence that’s always desperate for affirmation but never cloying. He knows everything and nothing all at once, and the movie sparks to life around him whenever Jeff is able to bridge the gap between those polarities; “Finch” is the sum of a hundred small pleasures, few of them more wonderful than hearing Jones’ decreasingly filtered voice say, “Teamwork is the key!” or wrap Jeff’s CPU around the emotional power of a postcard with all the exultant triumph of Chuck Noland creating a fire.

For all of its very funny slapstick, Jones’ performance grows more human with each scene (most of which hinge on highway pitstops of one kind or another), allowing Jeff to evolve with both the speed of a neural network and the uncertainty of a toddler. It’s truly moving to see hints that Goodyear might be safe with him after all. Hanks doesn’t have to stretch himself nearly as far as his co-star, but the film is well-served by that un-fussiness, and the ambiguity it allows for a character who spends most of his screen time in the liminal spaces between clear emotions.

Finch is dying to engineer a lifeline for a world that he won’t live to see, and desperate to break the cycle of abandonment that his father sparked before the apocalypse took it to new extremes. He’s been coded not to trust other people, and Hanks — whether loving or impatient or simply trying, as so many parents do, to find a productive expression of his fear in the face of inherited precedent — is still unmatched at playing the wounded decency of a good man in a bad situation. While soft around the edges to an extent that can risk neutering its nicecore sci-fi soul, “Finch” is able to get by without any big, mawkish swells of emotion (or seismic feelings of any kind) because of the quiet resolve that Hanks finds in its namesake. Also because of the “Fitzcarraldo” cosplay that he wears in one crucial scene, which is enough to redeem even the most programmatic aspects of his character.

The truth is that Finch thinks himself a coward because he used the end of the world as an excuse to keep hiding from it, and befriended a four-legged pal who would never leave him behind. All the same, it takes an enormous amount of courage to find a real measure of hope in a ruined future that’s already on fire, and even more to engineer it for yourself. A broadly safe film like “Finch” might roll into its destination with an ease that belies the risks of getting there, but sometimes the real treasure is the friends we build along the way.

Grade: B+

“Finch” will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, November 5. Apple will also distribute the film in select Drafthouse theaters.

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