As climate chaos continues to spin out of control, the populace has begun splitting into a few groups. In the U.S., researchers initially dubbed these groups the Six Americas. By now, it’s down to about three: Those that’d prefer to keep their heads in the sand, those desperately shouting for change, and those profiting off of inaction at the expense of our global future. The post-apocalyptic Finch takes place in such a future, dominated by extreme weather and hot enough to pop popcorn off a stray hubcap, watching a man reckon with his choices as he’s confronted with mortality.
There’s plenty of sand, and if it wasn’t for his dog, you’d think Finch (Tom Hanks) would happily dip his dome under the dunes. But like many Last Man on Earth stories, ranging from Harlan Ellison to Fallout—from I Am Legend to Mary Shelley and Stephen King—a dog can be worth everything once civilization has fallen. Finch and its fatherly interests in teaching a robot (Caleb Landry Jones) to survive in order for it to help a dog survive, might just be another drop in this particular sci-fi bucket, but its overachieving performances and FX (and uneasy relationship to our present) at least allows it moments of novelty in the subgenre’s long and crowded legacy.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, Finch (which used to have the much better name BIOS) so familiarly slots into our cultural idea of a post-apocalypse that it’s almost depressing. You could get sidetracked and spiral just thinking about the number of scripts that’ve been written, shopped around, and pushed into production by hungry execs looking to capitalize on audiences’ anxiety. It’s not that it’s completely pessimistic (these stories almost all end with bittersweet hope), but that it’s such a lackluster creative response to these fears. Cars are strewn in the street, but not so densely as to be expensive or unsightly. The color palette is a bleak, sunburnt orange-brown. Survival means rugged individualism, but what if…people overcame their distrust and worked together? It’s not particularly engaging, even with the one or two premise tweaks separating the Quiet Places from The Walking Deads. And they all seem to open with people hunting through a grocery store for a single can of food.
The first script from Craig Luck and Ivor Powell (the latter of which was a Ridley Scott producer) isn’t the most elegant thing in the world. Finch is another isolationist survivor, a dweeby mole man engineer who made it fine on his own, thank you very much. Except now he’s dying and he’s got to leave his bunker. An early moment sees Finch reading a book titled The Effects of Exposure to Ionizing Radiation, which I had assumed was the post-apocalyptic version of the Victorian blood-in-the-hanky until the film proved that trope, like cockroaches, will outlive society as we know it. Finch’s RV is similarly stocked with some of the most on-the-nose mixtapes to grace a soundtrack. And Hanks is also asked to deliver a handful of doofy anecdotes—you know, the kind of stories characters tell in response to a simple question—which he only manages to pull off because he remains one of the most compelling and empathetic actors we’ve got. But it’s on the other side of these anecdotes, when the movie isn’t building its world but settling into its interpersonal dynamic, where it finds its strength.
Jones’ robot, who names himself Jeff, is everything for Finch. Taking heavily from the design of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, with more exposed guts and rusty coloring to signify its DIY origins, Jeff is a marvel to watch. His massive weight, imperfect movement and physicalized curiosity all feel totally natural in the film’s world, specifically next to Hanks. These spectacular effects and the dual performances from Hanks and Jones (Finch’s observation and reaction to his janky Astro Boy is just as important as Jones’ amusingly off-kilter deliveries and posture) makes Jeff endearing rather than cloying, pulling off the charming alpha release version of a precocious child character. Though he sounds a bit like Microsoft Borat, Jeff is no Chappie.
That said, what Finch finds along its robo-road trip plays a bit like Neill Blomkamp’s Hallmark movie. That’s not all bad, especially when you have such a tight and accomplished cast. Hanks has more to work with here than a bloody volleyball and his expertise in building a schlubby, prickly, lovable lump is unmatched. His scruffy pup, thankfully asked to do little more than be a very good boy by playing fetch and hopping up for a nap, effortlessly makes the case that he could coax Finch from his cave of self-interest. The complicating factor, then, is Jeff. The paternal themes tapped into by the robot’s need to learn about survival—allowing for exposition—and the day-to-day tasks of the world—allowing for fatherly moments like teaching him how to drive—push Hanks’ performance places that the script is unable to follow. Hanks taps into shallow wells of regret and affection, the kind of too-little-too-late tragedy of many twilight year developments, but too much time is spent on half-hearted and predictable incidents of action or suspense to fully pay off his weighty gazes and broken-down, mid-vomit cries.
These built-up maybe-threats—shot and cut quite a bit sillier than the quiet moments—as opposed to the very real threats of the environment’s blazing sun and rampant tornados, mean to put us in Finch’s head: Danger lies around every corner. But from this, there isn’t space in the film for that notion to grow or breathe—nor space for Finch’s mechanical progeny to learn any differently. That makes Finch’s series of tonal rebuttals and narrative surprises not just wonky sci-fi that’ll rub the genre geeks the wrong way, but emotionally uneven storytelling that’ll leave you colder than a melting ice cap. If post-apocalyptic stories reflect international anxiety, randomly doled-out optimism must reflect that assurance among moderates that doing nothing will still somehow fix everything. They’re the main characters in their stories, after all.
Sapochnik hasn’t made a feature since 2010’s Repo Men, but in the meantime he’s been helming things like the pilot to Altered Carbon and the most ambitious episodes of Game of Thrones...which basically had the budget, schedule, length and aims of films anyways. His work here, coaxing something technically impressive and relatively affecting from a lackluster script, is filled with the deceptively simple panache of an experienced journeyman. I wish it were in service of something great. But his take on Finch fills a forgettable sci-fi with standout elements—making the most of what he’s got left, even if it’s not enough.
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writers: Craig Luck, Ivor Powell
Stars: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones
Release Date: November 5, 2021 (Apple TV+)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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