Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writers: Craig Luck, Ivor Powell
Stars: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones
Almost every year since 1984 we’ve received a new Tom Hanks movie, and what continues to impress about the man is his refusal almost always to take on safe projects; he instead signs on to films that could easily crash and burn if not handled with a unique vision and delicate care in the storytelling. I’m thinking of Cloud Atlas, I’m thinking of last year’s News of the World, and I’m of course thinking of the 2000 drama Cast Away. At the height of his power and influence as an actor, Hanks decided to make a film in which he spends more than half of its running time on-screen completely alone, and miraculously it worked—Cast Away remains one of my all-time favorite Tom Hanks movies.
Now, if you were hoping in Cast Away for Wilson the volleyball to talk back, and for Hanks to have a cute and cuddly animal companion, then you’ll be looking at something close to what his latest film Finch is all about, a surprisingly terrific and emotionally devastating apocalyptic yarn that offers another tour-de-force performance by the Oscar-winning actor. I say surprisingly terrific because the film was shot way back in early 2019, and instead of being released in theaters, it’s been dropped directly onto AppleTV+; furthermore, the advertising in the weeks leading up to its streaming start date left a bit to be desired. If you’re worried this one was going to be an embarrassing Hanks’s clunker like Inferno or The Circle, don’t be; although it’s imperfect to be sure, you’re in for a treat.
In Finch (originally titled BIOS—thank God they changed the title!), Hanks is for the most part the sole human being, his robotics engineer character of Finch Weinberg one of the few survivors after a solar flare turned Earth into an ultraviolet radiation wasteland. Dying of cancer, Finch creates an advanced robot companion named Jeff to take care of his dog Goodyear when he’s gone. A storm that is to last forty days approaches his location of St. Louis, and he embarks on a perilous trip with Jeff and Goodyear to San Francisco.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik (Repo Men, Game of Thrones), and executive produced by Cast Away’s own Robert Zemeckis, Finch has a striking visual look and confident sense of pacing from the opening scene, the planet decimated of civilian life, Finch always risking his life when he leaves his underground laboratory. His whole world is his canine Goodyear, who is likely the sole reason Finch has gone on as long as he has. And when they set out on the dangerous motorhome road trip, it’s clear he’ll do anything to keep the dog safe, which brings into the narrative the truly otherworldly character—the sophisticated Jeff, one of the most believable and fascinating robots featured yet in the movies.
The film would still have been interesting (and likely more downbeat) if Finch and Goodyear had been the only two characters throughout, but Jeff is a critical component, adding humor and spectacle, and gravitas to the proceedings. The robot is not a mere visual effect that was added later; Caleb Landry Jones was the actor on set every day portraying Jeff through motion capture, thus making Finch’s interactions with his new companion seamless and a thrill to watch. Better yet, Jeff himself has a fascinating arc, not only learning the necessary skills to go about the new devastated world but also discovering the meaning of responsibility, friendship, and empathy. An emotional moment Jeff shares with Finch at the end could have felt sentimental or odd, but because the living robot is so remarkably believable, it comes off as affecting and earned (and might have wrung a few tears out of yours truly).
If the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of being a great film, it’s merely in the lack of surprises in the screenplay by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell. It’s a piece that has plenty of powerful scenes and is a delight to watch, but exactly what you expect to happen in the second half pretty much comes to fruition, offering a final scene in particular that most any viewer will see coming. In addition, the film is occasionally overwritten at times, with too much dialogue between Finch and Jeff when longer stretches of silence and reflection could have added more mystique.
However, this is for the most part a riveting, hugely entertaining film that shouldn’t be buried in the thick of awards season and the big holiday blockbusters. The action is spectacular; the visual effects are top-notch. The character of Jeff is a dazzling creation guided by the talented hands of Caleb Landry Jones, and Tom Hanks is at the top of his game. He makes the friendships with both Goodyear and Jeff always believable, and the way he leans into his character’s illness to show its destructiveness on the body is essential to the film’s success, Hanks shedding any ego as he gives us the highs and lows of his character’s final days.
Twenty years since his groundbreaking turn in Cast Away, he shows he is one of our few actors who can keep a movie interesting even without any other human beings in the frame. Sandra Bullock was able to do it is so brilliantly in Gravity; add to the list Robert Redford in All is Lost, Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, and Tom Hardy in Locke. But I’m not sure if any major actor has done it successfully twice, and thus Hanks proves once again why he has a tremendous eye for material, and why he is simply one of the best in the business.