It’s been over twenty years since Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis pulled off the massive flex that was Cast Away, a film in which Hanks spends an hour alone on a beach acting against a blood-stained volleyball. Finch, the new post-apocalyptic road movie streaming now on Apple TV+, offers Hanks a similar challenge. This time, his only co-stars are a CGI robot (voice and performance capture by Caleb Landry Jones, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and a dog (Seamus, a rescue terrier mix who is billed third in the credits). Like many other Zemeckis productions, the film relies heavily on a single visual effects gimmick, but director Miguel Sapochnik never allows the film to turn into a VFX reel, keeping the humanity of the organic and synthetic leads front and center. Finch is a heartfelt sci-fi coming-of-age story that’s somehow both bleak and treacly, but in a way that mostly balances itself out.
Stand Down “Chappie Alert”
Engineer Finch Weinberg (Hanks) has survived a disastrous solar flare event that burnt up most of Earth’s ozone layer, leaving the planet barely habitable. Direct sunlight now burns crops and fries flesh, and a combination of starvation, radiation, and infighting has killed most of humanity. Finch hides out at his old laboratory, where he’s built a small menagerie of automatons to perform mundane tasks and to help him scavenge for food. While he’s attached to his robotic hunting partner Dewey, his only living companion is his dog, Goodyear. Realizing that he will soon succumb to radiation poisoning, Finch constructs a humanoid robot to look after Goodyear after his death.
When he’s first activated, the robot threatens to be annoying enough to ruin the movie. The slapstick humor around his struggles to master control of his body wears down quickly, and he speaks with a goofy Borat accent. Soon, however, the comedy becomes more subdued and the intent behind it becomes clear: Finch is the story of a lonely old man raising a child from infancy to adulthood in the space of about three days. Jeff, as the robot names himself, quickly grows from an annoying toddler who incessantly spouts trivia like Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire to an emotionally vulnerable adolescent, a genuinely compelling protagonist who can hold his own opposite Tom Hanks. (It helps that he eventually loses the Borat voice.)
Nowadays, the ability to seamlessly integrate a computer-generated character into a live-action scenario is (unfairly) taken for granted. What’s still impressive is when an actor can bring a digital character to life in such a way that the hard work of the VFX department becomes invisible, and that’s just what Caleb Landry Jones brings to Jeff. At first, Jones’ acting feels a bit affected, defined by tics like Jeff’s fascination with articulating his new hands. But as the story unfolds, Jeff’s growth is conveyed far more through Jones’ physical performance than through the script or his interplay with Hanks. By the latter half of the film, Jeff’s emotional life feels accessible and relatable despite his blank metal face, marked only by circular cameras that can’t angle themselves to imply eyebrows like WALL-E. Having Tom Hanks for a scene partner certainly helps, but it never seems as if Hanks is pulling extra weight. Deft direction and musical orchestration lend a hand, but Jones is doing the work and it pays off handsomely.
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The Walking Dad
Finch is a road trip movie, with our surrogate family of human, robot, and canine departing a burnt-out St. Louis for San Francisco, where they hope to find food and relief from deadly UV radiation. As the party sets off in their customized solar-powered recreational vehicle, Jeff gains a better understanding of what the post-flare world is like and how Finch has been living in it. Finch travels and scavenges by day because the sun is a danger he understands. Going out at night instead would spare him the deadly radiation, but would also mean encountering other humans. Finch never cared much for people before the world went to hell, and now they’re starving, desperate, and cruel. The people outside cannot be trusted, so he’ll build his own person from the ground up.
Jeff, a newborn, is untouched by the darkness of the world and lacking any context for it. He’s an innocent, a source of levity in an environment that’s no longer hospitable to joy. The juxtaposition of Jeff’s childlike wonder and the bleakness of the scorched Earth is sometimes a bit jarring, but this tension is also acknowledged and drives the central conflict between the characters. The dog, after all, is just a prop, the walking embodiment of the responsibilities and burdens of life that Jeff will have to live up to. The story is really about the fraught emotions of a father/son relationship. Finch is a parent who has a limited time to prepare his offspring for dangers he doesn’t yet understand; Jeff is a kid who has that same short span to make his father proud of him.
There’s a fine line between “moving” and “manipulative” and Finch treads across it here and there. The film accumulates more nuance as it progresses and Jeff becomes a more complete and interesting character. Until the two characters become capable of having real conversations, the film relies too much on clumsy expository monologuing, broad physical comedy, and obvious needledrops. Once the show gets (literally) on the road, the experience improves significantly until it reaches a genuinely emotional climax. The jokes in the first act had me groaning, but there’s a visual gag in the last ten minutes with such poetry and timing that it actually choked me up.
Unsurprisingly, the element of the film that’s always on point is Tom Hanks. Hanks has an irrepressible warmth that’s a perfect fit for a character who only thinks he dislikes people. It’s hard to imagine another leading man who could lend Finch the humanity it needs to succeed. But, the truth is, we expect this kind of performance out of Hanks, just as we expect a computer-driven character to look like it’s really in the shot. The chemistry between Hanks and Caleb Landry Jones gives a greater life to both of their characters, and makes the film just a bit more than the sum of its parts.