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‘Finch’ Review: Building a friend for the end of the world

Tom Hanks, a dog and their robot pal hit the road in a predictable but generous jaunt through post-apocalyptic America.
Credit: Apple TV+

SAN ANTONIO — Though it was the COVID-19 diagnosis of Tom Hanks, aka America’s dad, that pushed a wider swath of Americans to take the virus seriously in early 2020, I don’t expect his latest role as a dying engineer wandering the post-apocalyptic West in Apple TV+’s “Finch” to do the same for climate change.

Partially, that’s because few Apple TV+ projects outside of “Ted Lasso'' seem to make a dent in the mainstream consciousness. More so it’s because our devastation of Earth isn’t really a point of debate in the dusty, desolate world of “Finch” so much as a fact of life, rendered in massive superstorms and a shredded atmosphere that makes stepping into the sun downright lethal if you don’t have the right equipment. What’s done is done by the opening moments of this new movie from director Miguel Sapochnik, making a mostly assured return to film after directing some of the bloodiest “Game of Thrones” episodes, including the epic clash between armies of the dead and living in season eight’s “The Long Night.”

Aside from a brief nighttime sojourn that may incite deja vu of the murky, moonlit visuals of “The Long Night,” however, there’s no tell-tale signs that “Finch” – a gentle-handed affair as wholesome as it is straightforward – was brought to life with the same gut-punch brutal hand that Sapochnik wielded to leave his “Game of Thrones” mark. On the contrary, “Finch” plays like the closest thing to a live-action Pixar movie as anything we’ve gotten since “Paddington 2,” and that’s before we spot a familiar, frizzy-haired troll hanging from Finch’s rear-view mirror a few minutes in. Hanks only grows more endearing with every gray hair he sprouts, hence the natural, biting melancholy that blooms when we see his Finch living alone with trusty pooch Goodyear, sheltered from outside hazards.

But this is also a movie where the doomsday shelter has a “Home Sweet Home” welcome mat and oldies-crooning record players, and while those casual pleasantries slightly undercut the sting of cataclysm we see outside, “Finch” (and Finch) has its eye on what remains to be done, on the preparations that are to be made when the only priorities in life are the companions we share them with.

It’s a considerable achievement in its own right that Sapochnik and the screenwriters, Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, fertilize the story with such bleak ideas when what grows out of it amounts to a brisk sci-fi jaunt that you can reliably show the whole family without worrying that the youngest members will be scarred too deeply. That’s largely thanks to Jeff, the autonomous robot created by Finch that lends varying amounts of whimsy, soul and learned humanity to a story steadily shaping itself into a fairly predictable, but nonetheless effective parable about reckoning with what can and can’t be controlled. Voiced and performed via motion-capture by Caleb Landry Jones, who gives a wily and precise physicality to his AI role, Jeff’s main programmed directive is to look after Goodyear when the radiation-sick Finch departs.

The writing can feel just as programmed early in this age-old robot-human dynamic, as Jeff stumbles while taking his first steps and communicates in what sounds annoyingly like a donkey’s digitized braying. But it comes into marginally more vivid life when this strangest of dystopian families hits the road with a superstorm on their tails, giving Finch a more immediate burden and “Finch” an urgency underscored by Jeff’s youthful naivete. Luck and Powell take shortcuts where they can in regards to Jeff’s enrollment in Post-Apocalyptic Survival 101, but it’s in service to a story staying on the emotional straight and narrow by foregrounding its core relationship, rubbing Finch’s weariness up against his creation’s eagerness to please to increasingly thorny effect. If you’re looking for deep philosophizing about our relationship with technology, you’d be better served with a revisit of “Ex Machina.” And antagonists? Any proper post-apocalyptic tale needs its cold-blooded scavengers, but here they’re only implied or otherwise left to the periphery (literally so in a key flashback serving as the movie’s key grab-the-tissues moment). “Finch’s” relative softness makes “A Quiet Place” look like “The Road,” but after the year and a half we’ve just had there’s something to appreciate about how it lets us down easy.

There’s more room to be impressed when it comes to Jeff itself...er, himself. The visual effects team has done something stellar and imperative with the character, whose goggle-shaped eyes reflect a persistent curiosity while his cone-shaped head resembles an exclamation point. The mech’s liveliness may play like an irritating dose of irony amid the urban ruins, but there’s something to be said for our belief that it’s really a walking, talking robot standing right there, at the end of all things. Rare is the genre movie nowadays that leaves you wondering how a literal nuts-and-bolts presence has been so seamlessly integrated into the environment (usually because we’ve come to expect and accept the globs of visually dissonant CGI pixels), but Jeff’s delicate weightiness is a marvelous vehicle for the sympathy he engenders—it’s a feat of technical finesse that leaves an impression.

And Jones’s voice performance is its own compelling special effect, subtly charting Jeff’s arc by how it evolves over the course of the story as if in a perpetual state of rewiring its vocal codes. Suddenly, one realizes in the movie’s later scenes, the robot that once sounded like Siri’s drunken cousin could be mistaken for human, and it’s to Sapochnik’s credit that Finch seems to recognize Jeff’s potential before the audience does. Say what you want about the meatier roles Hanks should be getting at this point in his career, but it’s because of his performance – more dynamic than you might expect, as heartbreaking a turn as we know he can deliver – that gives “Finch” the clout to end on as graceful a note as it does. It isn’t with the intensity of a climactic shootout or dramatic rescue mission that the movie rests its case, but with a magnificent visual framing of man’s relative insignificance and a generous reminder of our potential to endure in spite of it.

"Finch" is rated PG-13 for brief violent images. It's now streaming on Apple TV+. 

Starring: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones, Marie Wagenman, Lora Martinez-Cunningham

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

2021

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