A man, a robot and a dog form an unlikely family in a dead world.
There’s a scene in Finch where lanky robot companion Jeff, wearing a massive parka he’s found on a scavenging trip, stands alone in the rain — while his maker, Finch, stomps off angrily to the RV in which they are travelling in search of safer ground. Poor Jeff looks like an A.I. Liam Gallagher, abandoned after another mid-tour bust up with Noel.
There may be no actual Oasis in Finch but the score certainly works hard: mostly jaunty standards from various decades, they are a wistful reminder of the old world, as well as adding a veneer of witty incongruity to a story set on a dying planet. Sometimes Finch (Tom Hanks) has the odd warble himself. In space, no one can hear you scream; on an almost-empty, post-apocalyptic Earth, one of the few bright spots if I were the last woman left alive is that no one can hear you sing.
Finch isn’t the last man on Earth though he probably wishes he was — the unseen scavengers are the film’s bogeymen, more even than the terrifying tornados that spin across this boiling hot, irradiated, sand-covered wasteland. The cause of the cataclysm is a solar flare over a decade before (solar flares are the new extinction level event menace; shorting out the internet, they lay bare our supposed hubris in relying on a virtual world for almost everything, when in the real one society collapses and billions slowly die).
He’s also not entirely alone either, holed up with his pet dog Goodyear in the science institute bunker where he used to work. Now he is putting his affairs in order before the radiation sickness he’s suffering from kills him; Jeff is the result of this, a humanoid robot specifically designed to look after Goodyear once Finch is gone. (Jeff is so human I did of course worry what would happen to him once Goodyear died.)
Too soon they have to leave their haven, when an incoming megastorm threatens to destroy even Finch’s bunker. As Finch, Jeff, Goodyear and robot dog Dewey head out to Finch’s beefed-up RV, aiming for the mountains and then, Finch hopes, San Francisco, they look like an odd little family leaving for a wedding, Finch with his suit carrier and Jeff lugging a suitcase.
It’s funny but it’s also another mark of the humanity in this story of a crotchety, very ill man who has literally created Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), an amalgam of circuits, metal and downloaded library books. Jeff may have been built to be a glorified dog sitter, but as he comes to life and Finch starts to fade, it’s about how we as individuals hand on the relay baton, freeing others to move forward into the unknown while carrying with them at least some of the traditions of our past.
Director Miguel Sapochnik has crafted a fine family drama despite having only one human character. While it’s sometimes earnest it’s also unsentimental. Finch may be science fiction (for now anyway!), but it’s less about the End Times than about the threads from the past that carry on, even as we fall by the wayside. The design choices and touches of retro colour add to the insistence that life and family are part of an ongoing, unbreakable chain.
Finding out what family means is not a new theme, and Finch is also about finding peace in the face of loss and regret: Finch missed his opportunities to see the world when it was normal and knowable, and now a trip is a desperate journey looking for relative safety, hiding from others rather than greeting them with open arms.
Hanks is on fantastic form, not so much raging at the dying of the light as revealing the layers of a man who has surfed the waves of an average life: hopeful, let down, and finally accepting and pragmatic. Despite that acceptance Hanks’s Finch is no beatific saint; made angry by his pain and terrified that time is running out, he’s often unlikeable. For this to work of course, Jeff has to be more human than he actually needs to be to look after Goodyear. Really if Jeff didn’t seem like such a desperate-to-please human Finch wouldn’t seem mean at all; it would be like me shouting at my coffee pod machine when it spurts around rather than into the mug. That he is so likeable looks partly artistic licence — we have to care about Jeff’s artificially-created feelings in a way we wouldn’t about a coffee maker — and partly a comment on our desperation for companionship, even when Finch says outright he doesn’t want that.
Their road trip is tense, funny and sad as Jeff learns as he goes, making mistakes, trying to please, his naïveté causing more problems than his helpfulness solves. It’s Finch who built him this way, making his complaints and crushing reprimands seem all the more cruel. Jeff may be built to serve but he’s also, like Frankenstein’s Monster before him, a child in an adult super-body. Landry Jones plays him as an innocent abroad, a synthetic made sympathetic, and it’s impossible not to feel for him.
The tropes and signposts are further magnified by the tiny cast and sparse narrative, but they fit into this story. Finch lies in bed next to his slumbering pet, reading a massive book about the effects of radiation; but there’s no internet, and he has a vast scientific library in his home. What else would he do? A later sign of potential optimism as they travel into the mountains may be almost cartoon-like but it was a symbol even an old cynic like me craved.
News Of The World, Hanks’ last film, was also about a loner building a relationship with a new companion, and also a road trip through the empty vastness of America, hiding from violent attackers. That was set in the 19th century and was about bringing together isolated communities, and in Finch they are trying to avoid the remaining people that might be out there; yet Finch himself is actually still helping to create the connections of a new world emerging from a battered one. Communities and societies build up from families, however they come to be, and Finch is also, without realising it, helping to rebuild.
My very spoilery article about the movie is here: There’s hope for humanity yet — Finch recap
Finch premiered globally on Apple TV+ on 5 November 2021
Watch the Finch trailer now: