By Ben Hiett
I wasn’t expecting much out of “Finch,” a small-scale sci-fi movie quietly released on Apple TV+ last weekend. True, it did star American acting legend Tom Hanks in the titular role, and, based on promotional footage, the practical and CG effects for his robot companion looked convincingly realistic.
Still, none of what I saw looked unfamiliar. Moviegoers have seen the “post-apocalyptic world ravaged by some major disaster” story told time and time again in films such as “I Am Legend,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” and even Pixar’s “WALL-E.” From what could be seen in the trailers, Tom Hanks’ role seemed to be fairly standard for his career, with him playing another everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation. Even the robot, who eventually gives himself the “human name” Jeff, seemed like a strange fusion of the endearing clumsiness of Baymax from “Big Hero 6” and the heartfelt curiosity of WALL-E.
At first, that’s exactly what “Finch” seems to be. We open on the desolate ruins of St. Louis, where we find Hank’s Finch scavenging derelict grocery stores dressed in a protective suit. An unassuming robotics engineer, Finch is one of the last survivors on Earth after a massive solar flare destroys the ozone layer. His protective suit shields him from the blazing temperatures and scorching UV radiation that would otherwise reduce him to a smoldering corpse.
Robotics engineer Finch (Hanks) tends to robot rover Dewey, one of his many ingenious creations that has helped him survive the apocalypse.
We follow him back to his home, an underground lab that serves as an abode for himself, his dog Goodyear, and his robot rover Dewey. Here we see him at work on his latest project: a humanoid robot designed to take care of Goodyear once Finch passes away. His passing is not a far-off inevitability to him; his frequent coughing fits, a symptom of radiation poisoning, serve as a sobering reminder of his mortality.
Radiation is only one of Finch’s problems, as an approaching superstorm threatens to destroy the urban wasteland he calls home. Shortly after activating his newest creation, he gathers up his motley crew of androids and dog and starts off on a cross-country road trip in search of a new home.
Again, a fusion of familiar story elements: a man and his dog, a quirky robot companion, and a road trip that’s equal parts contemplative character moments and life-threatening adventure. Yet these generic parts add up to a sum that’s greater than its parts: a heartful, somber story about growing up and growing old. The effective coalescence of these elements flows out of the film’s two strongest aspects: its focus on Finch and Jeff’s relationship and (unsurprisingly) Tom Hanks’s performance.
Starting with the latter, Hanks’ performance is what sells this story. Though we don’t learn a lot about Finch, we learn enough: He’s a broken, world-weary man who has witnessed humanity tear itself apart in the face of crisis. His trust issues trace back to long before the solar flare, however, stemming from his troubled relationship with his own father.
This is Hanks at his most human and vulnerable. While I went in expecting his trademark quiet strength, his portrayal of Finch is defined the character’s shortcomings, both due to the dangers presented by the sun-scorched wasteland and the weaknesses brought on by disease and aging. He is persistent, persevering even, but not without moments of deep existential doubt when fear and frailty rear their ugly heads.
Jeff’s naïve innocence serves as the perfect foil for Finch’s disillusioned cynicism. This clash of personalities serves as the film’s main source of tension, both in its comedic and more serious moments. Sometimes Jeff’s ignorance about the world evokes nothing more than an exhausted smile from Finch; other times, it frustrates or even enrages him, leading him to harshly reprimand the robot for his unintentional carelessness.
The film leans into this troubled dynamic, so much so that I began to dislike Finch as a character. He seemed overly critical of Jeff’s mistakes even though the robot was literally just born yesterday. However, this relational strain effectively builds to the film’s turning point.
This time, Finch is the one who messes up, making a split-second decision that nearly gets them all killed. At first, he lashes out at Jeff; then, realizing his own guilt, he laments the hopelessness of their situation. But Jeff insists they push on, believing in them even when Finch does not. His persistence eventually pays off: When they reach California, they find the ozone layer to be intact, indicating that there might be hope for humanity after all.
This turn of fortune leads to the scene that made the movie for me. Able to safely feel the sun on his face for the first time in years, Finch puts on a nice summer suit and spends the day lounging about with Jeff, teaching him how to play fetch with Goodyear. Finch watches with quiet pride as Jeff’s robotic imitations give way to more organic, spontaneous motions, reflecting Jeff’s growth into his own unique “person.”
Suddenly, Finch is struck with one of his coughing fits, this time hacking up blood. Jeff runs over to help him back to the RV, desperately asking if there’s anything that he can do to help. Finch replies, “Jeff, you already have.”
In that one line, we realize that, despite all the moments of frustration and doubt and brokenness, Finch has never stopped wanting to see Jeff grow. He often didn’t do a good job of expressing that, and even now, words fail to convey the full depth of the pride he feels for what and who Jeff has become.
On its surface, “Finch” is a mix of movies we’ve seen before, but the longer it goes on, the more those familiar elements are transformed into something uniquely powerful and immediately accessible: a story about fatherhood. For Finch, “raising” Jeff is a near-impossible task, marked by frustration, brokenness and agonizing limitations. Yet there is an unshakable joy amid the brokenness, and it is that somber joy that the film so beautifully and unexpectedly captures.
“Finch” is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.