Film Review – Finch
Tom Hanks sure likes being in isolated places.
From Cast Away (2000) to The Terminal (2004), from Apollo 13 (1995) to Captain Phillips (2013), Hanks has repeatedly returned to characters trapped in confined situations and must use their wits to survive. These roles have benefited the legendary actor, as they take advantage of his on-screen charisma. Audiences love rooting for the good guy and Hanks has been the consummate good guy for the better part of the last half century. If there’s anyone that we wouldn’t mind being stuck with for a couple of hours, it’s him.
Finch (2021) is no different. Once again, we see Hanks trying to get by within a limited capacity. This time, he plays a character that uses his intellect and ingenuity to survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Hanks fills the title role with a balance of smarts, determination, vulnerability, and above all else, heart. Finch is a robotics engineer and one of the last remaining humans on earth. An environmental calamity has destroyed the planet, leaving it covered in sand and dirt. The destruction of the ozone layer has made heat radioactive, to the point where sunlight can burn skin within seconds. Finch travels during the day wearing a heavy suit and helmet, and even that is not enough to protect him completely.
Miguel Sapochnik’s direction constructs this world as a dust covered wilderness. The set design and art direction features abandoned buildings, restaurants, and apartments under heavy yellows and browns. Everything feels dried out. There are signs hinting at how mankind withered under the lack of resources. Whenever we pass by a convenience outlet or grocery store, graffiti spell out the word “Clear,” meaning that all the goods inside have been taken. Sandstorms materialize almost immediately, blinding everything in sight and leaving a path of destruction.
The writing (Craig Luck, Ivor Powell) tells an intimate story within this sci-fi framework. We learn that Finch has fallen ill, and suspects that he may not have much time left. In an effort to ensure that his dog Goodyear is looked after in the event of his demise, Finch builds an android named Jeff (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) in hopes that it will learn to take care of the canine. Things get complicated when Finch’s bunker becomes uninhabitable, and so the three travel together toward San Francisco in hopes of finding more comfortable conditions to live in.
We’ve gotten plenty of depictions of robots and artificial intelligence throughout movie history, and Jeff is one of the better ones. In terms of design and performance, Jeff borrows many of the lovable elements of other well-known mechanical lifeforms – from Short Circuit (1986) to Wall-E (2008). From the redness of his head to the gloves that give him humanlike hands, Jeff has a distinctive style. But it’s the character he grows into that makes him so endearing. Like a child learning how to walk, to a teen learning how to drive, to a man learning how to live independently, Jeff goes from youth to adulthood in a matter of days, with Finch guiding him along. The physical performance stands out. Little glimpses of a personality show us how Jeff becomes more of an individual, such as when he bounces up and down with excitement when Finch teaches him how to drive.
The narrative settles into a road trip story in the second and third acts, with events unfolding episodically. Finch, Jeff, and Goodyear navigate the weather, sandstorms, marauders, and at times each other. There is a thinness that makes the film feel small. Although the tone is earnest and sweet, the dramatic power resides only on the surface. Even when darker secrets are revealed, changing how we view the relationship of all three, it still doesn’t hit the heartstrings as well as its intended. Maybe because the writing and performances are so heartfelt, so on the nose sincere, that the result very nearly backfires. The story of man who loves his dog and child (at least the robotic version of a child) is so saccharine that it threatens becoming schmaltzy.
But whatever pitfalls there may be is washed away with another solid, dependable performance from Tom Hanks. It’s not a surprise that Hanks is one of our most celebrated actors. He has the keen ability to draw our empathy, to balance both a humorous and serious side that makes him the dad or uncle we enjoy hanging out with. When Hanks taps into Finch’s weaknesses – the distrust he has for other people, his frustrations with Jeff’s slow learning, and his rapidly deteriorating health – generating an emotional reaction with each different shade of the character’s personality. In a movie with a sci-fi premise and large scale special effects, it’s a single monologue delivered by Hanks that turns out to be the most memorable scene.
Although Finch dips a bit too much into sentimentality, watching Hanks operate in a role he has experience with makes the film worth a watch. It’s not that he repeats the same kind of performance he has before – he finds ways of taking familiar characters and adding a new wrinkle or different approach each time. It’s nice to see a performer with the kind of success he has still be able to take what he knows and breathe new life into it.