Miguel Sapochnik’s Finch might have the best character in a film this year with its robot protagonist, Jeff (motion captured and voiced by Caleb Landry Jones). Newly created and filled with curiosity, he’s the kind of character you’d generally see as a running joke in a Pixar film. Instead, Craig Luck and Ivor Powell’s screenplay puts equal emphasis on Jeff and his creator, Finch (Tom Hanks), turning a post-apocalyptic tale of a jaded man into a heartwarming father-son relationship that surrenders its bleak beginnings with a message of hope. A surprisingly tender film, Finch is the kind of hopeful science fiction that the world desperately needs.
It does begin bleak though and while Sapochnik provides plenty of levity throughout, there’s an undercurrent of sadness that refuses to go away. The post-apocalyptic setting only enhances that feeling. When we first meet Finch, he’s scouring a store for some food, managing to find a single can of dog food to bring home for his dog, Goodyear. His home is a shelter built below the only wind turbine working in the area. Radiation storms have caused Earth to become inhospitable and any exposure to light without a radiation suit will result in severe burns and death.
Finch doesn’t seem to have much gas left in the tank and he knows it. The only thing he cares about is his dog, who he cares so deeply for that he has been spending his time building a robot that will take care of him after he is gone. That’s the melancholy flowing through the film as Finch, Jeff and Goodyear head out to find somewhere better to live now that the storms have reached them. Every cough and wheeze from Finch hints that the end of his time on Earth is quickly approaching. What’s worse is that he still has to train Jeff and get Goodyear to get along with him, all with an unknown amount of time left alive.
That hopelessness begins to deteriorate the more time is spent with Jeff. Jones’s performance is so nuanced as his robotic avatar that Jeff ends up not only feeling human, but also capturing a sense of wonder and empathy within his steel and glass frame. His voice is modulated but every now and then, like a crack in his voice, his excitement breaks through. It’s the tiny details like that and the way Jeff shakes with enthusiasm or prods slyly at Finch’s guarded exterior that makes him appear like a child learning about the world.
At the heart of Finch is the wearing down of its titular character. Hanks portrays a character who trusts no one, insisting on only travelling during the day when no one else would be willing to. He’d rather face the known dangers of radiation and the end of the world, than deal with the unpredictability of a human. That hesitancy towards trusting others is what Jeff deconstructs through his interactions with Finch and the ultimate acceptance from Finch that if he’s going to entrust his dog to someone, he has to eventually trust they will do right by him.
Despite the lack of other human characters, the uneasiness that Finch feels echoes throughout the film, even without a threatening presence. There’s a single scene that reinforces Finch’s distrust of others, but outside of that, it’s mostly just a refusal to engage with the world around him. Everything else in the movie’s presentation is colored by Finch’s grizzly demeanor and it’s Jeff who breaks through that with the levity and good intentions that his creator so desperately needs to witness.
Finch structures itself around a character who is weary of humanity and another who only looks at the world with optimism. That dichotomy ultimately surfaces a modicum of hope within a sea of misery. Hanks provides a beautifully layered performance but its the exuberance and subtle flickers of humanity in Jones’s acting that gives Finch its heart. It results in a moving relationship that is endearing and heartfelt, even with the world’s end on the horizon. Finch might be a bit too quaint for some, but its exploration of trust and how a lack thereof can harm the potential for hope is extremely poignant.