FINCH (2021)

finch (2021)
On a post-apocalyptic earth, a robot, built to protect the life of his creator's beloved dog, learns about life, love, friendship and what it means to be human.
3.5 out of 5 stars

Finch is a cutesy sci-fi fable for dads, elevated by the warm and fatherly presence of Tom Hanks, and an example of the new economy in filmmaking. Maybe I’m wrong, but were there many star vehicles like this before COVID-19 and streaming, where an A-lister would helm a low-budget genre piece by himself in service of a specific media platform? I don’t know, but seeing Hanks go low-budget without needing to debase himself—unlike, say, Joan Crawford in Trog (1970), for which the Hollywood icon was paid a relative pittance to crawl about on her hands and knees shouting “Trog! Here, Trog!”—feels like a fairly new phenomenon to me. Still, he deserves all the kudos in the world compared to Nicolas Cage, who didn’t even bother to speak in Willy’s Wonderland (2021) and should probably have continued that contemptuous streak in Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021).

Hanks does actually give a performance and communicate a human personality in Finch, so even though the plot’s jerry-rigged from odds and ends from Cast Away (2000) and Short Circuit (1986), you’re still being told a (gasp!) story that’s (double gasp!) about something. Finch is ultimately a junkyard film, which I mean in the most complimentary sense.

The premise sees Finch (Hanks) as a scientist living in a post-apocalyptic desert with his loyal mutt Goodyear (Seamus) and, not long after the film begins, a robot companion he eventually christens Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones). He builds Jeff himself and feeds him full of books from a library, giving him an extensive vocabulary and general knowledge. (The film’s intent as a fable is indicated when Finch discovers and pockets a copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a 1943 children’s book about a young man visiting various planets.) We learn why Finch appears to be the last human left as the film progresses, and an atmospheric event forces him to flee for new territory with mutt and robot in tow. Hanks is the only human actor we see throughout this thrifty bit of solid-if-disposable Apple TV entertainment.

The film has an undeniably Boomer-y quality to a lot of its thematic underpinnings, like Finch explaining what postcards are to Jeff by saying that they’re what people sent before the internet became a thing. The writing in moments like that is definitely nostalgic in tone, appealing heavily to an audience of fathers who like to potter about their sheds tinkering with radios and car engines, much like Finch himself, shaking their heads in baffled lament over TikTok, Insta, and the rest of it.

Normally this tone would make me cringe until my face stuck that way, but Hanks makes it work because he is, low-budget production or not, the crucial actor for this role. He’s what makes Finch a distinctive presentation. It’s the lack of condescension and arrogance in his manner that does it. He’s not angry about anything exactly, just bemused, so older folk can identify with him while younger viewers can warm to the guy as a good-hearted kook. Most other actors, even great ones, would’ve overplayed the character’s gruffness, becoming irascible and mean. That might still have made a good movie, but also a different and less cosy one. Imagine Harrison Ford in the role, for instance; he’s a great actor who’s amusingly hard-boiled, but scenes where Finch yells at Jeff, tells him to stop apologising, and moans about his “knucklehead” former colleagues, would’ve played angrier and tenser.

With Tom Hanks, such moments are gentle and poignant, although the relationship between him and Jeff’s a little forced. In a half-comedic moment, Finch tells Jeff that Jeff may have been born yesterday, but he needs to grow up. Well, okay, sure, but the fact remains, Jeff was born yesterday, so maybe ease up on the constant guilt trips and mixed messages? (Like later, when Finch scolds Jeff for taking the initiative when he advised him earlier that he needs to do that more.) This fraught quality to their relationship makes it even more imperative that Hanks rather than someone like Ford took the role. With Hanks, the level of anger Finch has for Jeff is occasionally problematic, with Ford it might have had us rooting for the character’s death.

Caleb Landry Jones plays Jeff well.., I guess? It’s hard to gauge an actor’s performance when they don’t appear on screen and their voice is digitally altered for effect. I was honestly surprised to see that a named actor was played this role, given how the performance feels almost by design like it’s been made in a computer. That said, over time a personality does develop out of the performance until Jeff becomes rather like a human child from his more straightforwardly robotic origins. Considering the narrative’s Boomer-y rejection of too much convenience technology, and yearning for a little of the “old” ways, it might’ve been wiser to just let Jones act without then adding a digital layer to his voice. But then the digital layering does tie into the economised approach; where more time and labour-intensive work, around character-modelling might have created a subtler effect, simply adding a digital layer does an adequate job much easier.

As the post-apocalyptic element develops the film’s purpose as a fable becomes clearer. Finch isn’t preachy, exactly. (If only because its two-handed nature on the acting front and other reduced features don’t really allow for the bombast that preaching requires in narrative cinema.) But it is obviously a climate change parable to some extent, as the destroyed remains of civilisation and Finch’s fear of exposure to the sun puts the story in the realm of post-ozone. The ozone layer has worn away, and now we’re left in the UV glare, or rather the last of us is. The genre of fable allows us to overlook a lot of logical quirks, like Hanks’ blase response to creating human consciousness in an artificial form. From the beginning, it’s clear that Jeff’s able to think and feel some level of emotions, yet throughout Hanks doesn’t seem to register this. This doesn’t matter though, because, from the moment we see that copy of The Little Prince early on, the genre we’re in is clear. This is Aesop’s The Old Man, the Dog, and the Robot.

I wouldn’t personally choose to watch something like Finch purely for entertainment unless I was really bored. That’s not because it’s bad or even boring, but because I’d sooner watch Cast Away or Short Circuit than something salvaged from those films’ odds-and-sods drawers. Nonetheless, Finch is an economy film, and given that it was made on a low-budget to be churned out as filler for a streaming service, it’s pretty good. I wish all hamburger were this tasty.

UK USA | 2021 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Miguel Sapochnik.
writers: Craig Luck & Ivor Powell.
starring: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones, Samira Wiley, Laura Harrier & Skeet Ulrich.

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