starring Tom Hanks
written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell
directed by Miguel Sapochnik
by Walter Chaw No movie with Tom Hanks can be entirely bad, especially when that movie marries Hanks favourites Apollo 13 and Cast Away--two films in which our Jimmy Stewart is asked to be ingenious when everything goes wrong. In Finch, he is Finch, an engineer in the post-apocalypse after a solar flare has shredded our ozone layer, wreaking havoc on our crops and allowing the sun to fry people instantly. Time has passed since then, it seems, and there are few signs of life left in St. Louis other than Finch and Finch's dog, Goodyear. Like Hanks's volleyball buddy, the dog is named for a product and, because we've all read I Am Legend, we know that Goodyear is vital to Finch as the last link Finch has with not just the former world, but his own humanity as well. Oh, the humanity. Finch really loves the Don McLean song "American Pie" and, testament to Tom Hanks's titanic charisma and reservoir of goodwill, we like him anyway. We forgive him for Chet; we can forgive him for "American Pie." As the film opens, he's singing "American Pie" and scavenging for goods at the local dollar mart, meaning this is a Chloe Zhao movie all of a sudden though thankfully not for long.
Finch is not only an engineer, he's a robotics engineer, and we see him building a friend. The plot takes the form of a superstorm gathering over Missouri that will last a biblical 40 days, and since we're referencing Moses, we also have a sense that Finch is maybe not going to make it into whatever Promised Land he wants to get to, though he'll deliver his followers there before he croaks. Finch makes a Chappie he names Jeff, although Jeff would rather be called William Shakespeare or, after Finch suggests "something shorter," Napoleon Bonaparte. That's a joke about the diminutive emperor's height, I understand, but as Finch has told Chappie to pick something that hasn't been "taken," well, I guess Chappie is being either defiant or deficient. While this may seem like a dumb thing to get hung up on, with much of the intrigue and alleged humour of the piece hinging on how Chappie only manages to upload 72% of his brain before they have to run for it, well, I suppose I'm wondering if this robot is more M.A.R.K. 13 than Johnny 5. It's an important distinction, as Chappie--shit, Jeff--is incredibly powerful, ripping steel doors off their frame and lifting up the end of the modified RV they're car-tripping through the middle of America in their quest to reach "the mountains"--though their real goal appears to be San Francisco. I'm no geography wiz, but lots of mountains happen between Missouri and San Francisco. Again, this doesn't matter.
What matters is Hanks and how much, the evidence of Chet notwithstanding, he seems like he'd be an amazing dad--the paternal figure we would all love to have in our lives. He is patient with Jeff (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) when Jeff fucks up constantly, or is too literal, or makes a fatal error that nearly results in all of them getting killed, or is fantastically irritating. Hanks is so warm and affecting that he peanut-butters over the bulk of questions complicated, high-concept science-fiction tends to stir up. Compare Finch to George Clooney's disastrously patronizing The Midnight Sky, another post-apocalyptic take on a father and his fake kid that fails almost immediately because Clooney is good at being Clooney but not as good at being Tom Hanks. We like Hanks so much that when he develops a cough, it's almost not funny that they're spelling out his fate like he's a Victorian damsel. No fair guessing why it's so important for him to have a Chappie bodyguard, incidentally.
Here's another problem: Finch has programmed Jeff with Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" and added a fourth, transferring the robot's protective impulse to cover dogs, too. (Cats? SOL.) But because he's made it "impossible" for Jeff to hurt people, what happens if marauding bands of post-apocalyptic baddies should happen to descend upon Finch and Goodyear? What should happen is Jeff proving entirely incapable of hurting the bad guys because the bad guys are people (or dogs). How Finch avoids this issue is probably the only clever thing about it--if "clever" means setting the table for an interesting film and then failing to put the heroes in situations that challenge its premise. What I'm saying is that Finch isn't that kind of movie. Instead, it's a nominal tearjerker playing on the emotions of the type of people who leave a lot of money when they die to their dogs and nothing to those ungrateful children. (It's making more sense why Hanks did this film as we go along.) I will say that Hanks is quite good in this, his very own Captains Courageous: the noble mentor to a misfit child/bot (whom he refers to as "Rain Man" at one point, in a moment that would seem more unkind if America's Pop hadn't said it) who gets all the good speeches and the distended exit. "You be the best fisherman ever, little Finch." That's not the line, but it could have been.