While robots have always been common in dystopian and apocalyptic cinema, their presence in post-apocalyptic stories is relatively new. Following the massive popularity of Pixar’s 2008 classic Wall-E, about a cute robot scavenger, there have been several films that see these machines as less of the cause of the problem, but more of an assistant or even companion while surviving in a barren wasteland. However, few characters in post-apocalyptic fiction, robot or otherwise, are as enthusiastic and curious about life on Earth as the sentient Jeff in the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, Finch.
The occasionally petulant robot, voiced by Caleb Landry Jones, was built by (former) aerospace engineer Finch Weinberg (Hanks), not to be his companion, but to look after his dog, Goodyear, after he dies. Like the rest of the world, Finch suffered gamma radiation over a decade ago due to a solar flare busting a hole in the ozone layer. Now his days are numbered as he spends his time hacking up blood and teaching Jeff all he knows about life, survival, and bonding.
A giant step up from an unconscious volleyball with a red handprint-face (Castaway director Robert Zemeckis is listed as one of the film’s producers), Jeff is willing to spew all 16,000 facts he knows about dogs and recite from memory the user’s manual for Finch’s 1984 Southwind motorhome, but he can’t seem to follow simple instructions such as, “Don’t try to drive the RV,” or, “Please get me my UV-resistant suit so I don’t burn in the 150-degree sunlight.”
Jeff’s loose screws are likely due to the fact that they had to leave their former home, an underground laboratory in St. Louis, in a hurry following news of a 40-day storm heading their way, not allowing for the full data transfer to Jeff’s memory bank. Nevertheless, the humanoid’s childlike naiveté provides for a humorous, and at times vexing, road trip across the country to San Francisco.
As he teaches Jeff about survival and how to care for Goodyear, Finch discovers that, after a decade in isolation, he’s forgotten how to be around people, or maybe he never really knew how. At first treating Jeff with the admiration one would typically have towards an infinitely knowledgeable robot, Finch quickly falls back into the same stern, tactless tone that made him unable to work well with others back when the world was normal. But as he learns more about Jeff, and vice versa, our protagonist realizes through his incidental fatherly companionship with the machine that Jeff still deserves a level of respect regardless of his occasional incompetence.
Miguel Sapochnik (Game of Thrones, Repo Man) makes it easy for us to connect with Jeff. Unlike most robots, Jeff doesn’t need to learn emotion – a detail that’s much bigger than it appears, in that it almost makes him too human. His struggle with mortal aspirations isn’t overly stressed, yet his definite moments of pensiveness balance out his silly Borat cadence.
Fortunately, the comedy sticks around for the majority of the 115-minute runtime, not just adding color to the rest of the ponderous film but preventing it from becoming boring with its otherwise laxed pace. The director scatters amongst his low-maintenance story touches of urgency to keep the plot moving forward, even if some of the more intriguing details never get expanded upon.
In a barren wasteland, where thoughts about personal legacy or lasting impact seem moot, Finch expends what’s left of his energy ensuring that his dog will still be okay once he’s no longer on this Earth. Hanks is expectedly reliable, giving his most notable performance during the beginning of the movie, prior to Jeff coming to life. Unlike other last-man-on-Earth pictures, he doesn’t transparently wear his gloom on his face. After all, humans are more likely to show their emotions when other humans are present – not when we’re alone, and not just because there’s an audience beyond the fourth wall watching them.
Sapochnik paints Finch’s profile slowly through photographs and a trio of intermittent stories that he tells Jeff, giving us the bare minimum on him and his situation for us to properly digest and examine the story. The director, with a script written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, does a great job not leading us to where he’s going, even with these familiar broad strokes in the plot that could have easily rendered the movie predictable.
Beautiful desert scenery serves as a bonus in this a post-apocalyptic road dramedy whose aesthetics nearly become an afterthought amidst a deceptively unpredictable, albeit slow-moving, story that’s ultimately about a robot who learns from a flawed human, even if that human looks well put-together on the outside. Despite the occasional loose end and foot dragging, Finch is a fun, heartfelt, and often exciting movie with a ton of laughs that don’t detract from the emotional resonance.