Producers: Kevin Misher, Jack Rapke, Jacqueline Levine and Ivor Powell Director: Miguel Sapochnik Screenplay: Craig Luck and Ivor Powell Cast: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones and Seamus Distributor: Apple+
Tom Hanks is an old hand at playing an isolated character—he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a FedEx guy stranded on a deserted island in Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 smash “Cast Away”—and he offers something similar in this post-apocalyptic road movie from Miguel Sapochnik (who, since his 2010 feature debut with the awful sci-fi flick “Repo Men,” has concentrated on small screen work, including “Game of Thrones”). But this time around, Hanks isn’t reduced to talking to a mute volleyball; Finch Weinberg is an engineer accompanied not only by a dog called Goodyear, but by a talking robot he’s constructed and teaches to act human, a metal skeleton that takes the name Jeff (played by Caleb Landry Jones, who provides the voice and presumably did a lot of green-screen motion capture work as well, though a small army of puppeteers are listed in the credits).
When we first meet Finch, he’s living in an underground laboratory, a remnant of the firm he once worked for, with Goodyear and a smaller, beeping gofer robot called Dewey, occasionally venturing out into the wastes to scavenge what he can. It will eventually be revealed that the cause of the apocalypse was a solar flare that disrupted life on earth and turned people into Hobbesian hostiles at war with everyone else. But a few survived, although their numbers have been dwindling.
Armed with the encyclopedic knowledge Finch has been installing in him, Jeff predicts a ferocious oncoming storm that his creator decides they must try to evade, despite his own declining health, which prompted his creation of Jeff, whom he intends to be Goodyear’s protector after his death. (He even equips the bot with an electric can opener.) So they prepare their RV for a trip from St. Louis, their current location, to San Francisco, where the Golden Gate Bridge holds a special meaning for Finch.
What, precisely, won’t be revealed here; suffice it to say that sentiment is involved, and sentiment is not something that’s a rare commodity in the screenplay by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell. Indeed, it’s the major factor in Finch’s devotion to Goodyear (a flashback to how he adopted the dog is part of the mix), and in the father-son relationship between Finch and Jeff that’s at the center of the picture. Despite his size, the robot is a gawky childlike figure that despite its size, strength and stores of electronic memory has to be taught the most fundamental things, from physical actions like walking to how to interact with others, particularly Goodyear, whom the robot is designed as a replacement for Finch when he dies. That will entail plenty of talk and instruction about trust—how to earn it and how to keep it. Very often the script lapses into long conversations that might have been lifted from self-improvement best-sellers.
That doesn’t mean that “Finch” lacks room for occasional action sequences. The flashback to Finch’s adoption of Goodyear is one such, though it shows that the title character is at best a reluctant hero. And there are stops along the way that are designed to get the adrenaline flowing. The most notable is one in which Jeff makes a mistake that brings los and earns Finch’s rebuke, and necessitates a high-speed escape from a muscle car whose unknown occupant obviously does not harbor friendly intentions. A hair-breadth escape that Jeff’s instrumental in bringing off serves to redeem his earlier mistakes. There’s also bad weather in the form of a tornado.
Despite such episodes, however, this is essentially an intimate “becoming human” narrative in which the machine learns from a dying man to transcend its metallic origin to prove that artificial intelligence can develop even to the point of becoming a dog’s best friend. The message is delivered without subtlety in a sappy finale, in which Finch’s recurrent cough—which, in the finest cinematic tradition, is accompanied by some blood—finally takes its toll as Finch takes advantage of the clear air of the western desert to leave the RV without need of a hazmat suit and watches serenely as his dog and his surrogate son play together happily and the RV reaches the Golden Gate for a moment obviously meant to appeal to a viewer’s heartstrings and tear ducts. (Some might well prefer the far nastier ending of L.Q. Jones’s 1975 adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s dystopian “A Boy and His Dog,” though it’s definitely not for everybody.)
In any event, Hanks is his usual reliable self as the latest screen version of one of the last men on earth, even if his genial crustiness is hardly something we’ve not seen before. Jones (no relation to L.Q., one presumes) manages the voice work for Jeff well enough, capturing the bot’s gradual maturation; but the creature is far from the mist endearing such creation we’ve encountered on screen. A rescue named Seamus is entirely well-trained and convincing as Goodyear. “Finch” was made for theatrical release before the pandemic intervened and shifted it to streaming, but even so the look, as with so many of these post-apocalypse tales, is gritty and grimy. One can’t dispute that Tom Meyer’s production design and Jo Willems’ design aren’t appropriate to the story, while Scott Stokdyk oversaw the visual effects, which in the case of Jeff are fine; and though editor Tim Porter tends to linger to give Hanks room to emote, the film moves reasonably well. Gustavo Santaolalla provided the score, which bolsters both the action sequences and the more “domestic” ones.
Adequate but hardly exceptional, this schmaltzy post-apocalyptic road trip movie probably wouldn’t have made much of a dent in theatres; on smaller screens it’s a not-bad but quickly forgettable star vehicle.