Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Finch is familiar, but highly affecting post-apocalyptic cinema

Finch continues a long tradition of movies focused on A-list stars spending most of their screentime alone. Think The Martian, I Am Legend, or even Cast Away, a previous iconic movie from Finch leading Tom Hanks. Those films center on a single human doing everything they can do to survive, getting through another day is the ultimate goal. Finch, meanwhile, deviates from this norm by centering its plot on a man preparing to die. This isn't a guy who's given up and needs to be taught to live again, death is a certainty for him. The end is coming and that inevitability provides a moving crux to build Finch around.

We meet Finch (Tom Hanks) scrounging for supplies and dog food in a post-apocalyptic vision of St. Louis. Once he returns to his underground domicile, we learn that Finch's only companion is a canine and a little rover that behaves like a dog. It's also made apparent that Finch is slowly dying from prolonged exposure to radiation. With his demise on the horizon, Finch is cooking up a new companion that can take care of his doggie in the form of a bipedal robot that comes to be known as Jeff (Caleb Landy Jones). Once he's booted up, this cross between WALL-E and CHAPPiE has all kinds of knowledge stored up in his brain, but he's clueless about things like walking or what trust is. Jeff is going to need to learn quickly, as a brutal sandstorm forces Finch and company to hightail it to San Francisco just as this man's sickness grows worse.

Screenwriters Craig Luck and Ivor Powell don't rewrite the book with Finch, which results in undeniably predictable moments in the story. The inevitable hopeless moment at the end of act two arrives right on time and it's also easy to pick out which lines of dialogue will end up being reused as emotionally resonant callbacks in the final half-hour. Gustavo Santaolalla's score is also a familiar piece of work that often feels too much like it's channeling the works of John Williams. This comes at the expense of the composer crafting his own vision for what music a post-apocalyptic road trip should be set to.

However, the familiar details don't register as too much of a hindrance since Finch does prove to be a poignant affair. Luck and Powell may lean on some familiar details, but they also prove smart in committing to an intimate scope that never expands beyond a man, his dog, and his robot. There aren't forced antagonists or hamfisted flashbacks that spell out what life was like before the apocalypse. Keeping things so confined allows the focus to remain on the touching parallel journies of Finch growing weaker and Jeff becoming more humanlike. Poignant details like these provide the kind of sizzling culinary skills necessary to make familiar ingredients tasty again.

It's also cool to see a movie with a CG character (brought to life through motion capture) that utilizes a digital figure for purposes other than punching or spurring explosions. The focus of Finch is on Jeff learning how to drive or getting told stories by a weary Finch. These are the sort of intimate scenarios many films with CG protagonists forego entirely. Even if his initial voice sounded a little too Borat-like, Jeff eventually won me over by Finch director Miguel Sapochnik's dedication to using this mechanical figure for character-centric means. Combine this storytelling approach with remarkable work from the animators tasked with bringing Jeff to life, and you get a movie robot you won't soon forget.

Playing opposite this mechanical being is Tom Hanks as Finch. Getting to be the one human on-screen affords Hanks plenty of opportunities to deliver lengthy monologues that, of course, he executes with such authority that never undercuts his everyman aura. It's also amusing, endearingly so, that Finch is a post-apocalyptic figure in the mold of Tom Hanks. Rather than fending off zombies or wearing skulls around his neck, Finch has figured out how to make popcorn through the increased heat of the sun and just wants to protect his dog. Finch is also a bitter soul that had trust issues even before the apocalypse happened, so it's not like he's a Pollyanna figure, but it's still fun to see a protagonist in this strain of storytelling that's on the same wavelength as Hanks real-world persona.

Strong work from Hanks helps cement Finch as a movie good enough to make me wish it had been able to play in theaters instead of getting sent to Apple TV+, where it won't have a chance of garnering an audience. Hopefully, it can develop a positive reputation over time since Sapochnik's quiet yet affecting take on an end of the world story is the kind of tearjerker that'll work for general moviegoers and jaded cinema fans alike. Finch is totally following in the footsteps of past post-apocalyptic movies, but it has the good sense to know when to blaze its own trail.

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