Fetch. Of all human-dog interactions, fetch seems like one of the most boring. Throw, retrieve, repeat. But the thrill of fetch hits you in the moments where you stop trying to make fetch happen. When you hold, hide or feign throwing the ball so the dog gets supernaturally excited about the zoom it’s about to do. When the dog realizes it’s also capable of creating new wrinkles to this game, zigging and zagging around you several times before dropping the ball at your feet. When both of you create comfortable levels of repetition and routine as an outlet for canine energy and build simultaneous trust in simple, sustainable and surprisingly meaningful ways.
There’s a moment in Finch — in which the title character (Tom Hanks) builds a robot to protect Goodyear, his dog — where the robot, self-named Jeff, asks Finch to define trust. Not in a semantic sense. Jeff has enough input in its mainframe to sort that out. He wants Finch to explain its more emotional etymology. Like most creators when hit with a challenging question by their creations, Finch stumbles for an answer. We recognize trust when we find it and realize in a millisecond when it’s been lost. How do you express that? It’s a conversation that reverberates throughout Finch, never louder than in a later scene when Jeff first plays fetch with Goodyear and Finch implores Jeff from afar to throw it … throw it … THROW THE BALL ALREADY before understanding: Holding the ball may be more important than throwing it at all.
Of course, Finch, Jeff, Goodyear and a second scavenging WALL-E-ish robot named Dewey aren’t in secluded suburbia. They’re stuck in a post-apocalyptic America wiped out by solar flares, electromagnetic pulses, intense heat and dangerous radiation. On Finch’s maps, the northernmost notches of our nation simply read GONE. One of many books on Finch’s stack is Apocalypse Survival: May 2028, suggesting a slew of incrementally terrible conditions to survive. Hey, at least you need not travel to Norway to get the best looks at the Northern Lights.
Each day, Finch plows stalled sedans out of his way to scavenge any remaining supplies. The days are short, as sandstorms and other weather events once aberrant to greater St. Louis send Finch scurrying back to his fortified shelter, where he once made a living as a scientist and continues to tinker. Finch lives there now with Goodyear and Dewey, slowly putting final touches on Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones, in a motion-capture and vocal performance). Jeff has been programmed with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but he has a unique fourth directive: In the absence of Finch, protect Goodyear, even if you’ve got to violate the first law about not harming humans to do so. It’s a tricky bit of code before the arrival of a 40-day superstorm for which Finch and company can’t hunker down and ride out. So Finch moves up his timetable, and he, Goodyear, Dewey and a very rough-around-the-edges Jeff embark on a dangerous journey westward to what Finch hopes will be safer pastures.
Available to stream Friday for Apple TV+ subscribers, Finch seems like it will simply cross the last-man-left odyssey of I Am Legend and the sometimes-sad sentience journey of artificial intelligence in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, especially with nigh-identical robot design to Blomkamp’s creation. Thankfully, Finch is better than either big-budget disappointment, an amiable science-fiction story about a guy, his dog and his anthropomorphic robots that’s more about life’s enrichment than its endangerment. It’s the byproduct of a strange-bedfellows script by Craig Luck, a longtime production assistant on MCU and Disney live-action films, and Ivor Powell, a near-octogenarian who came up with filmmaker Ridley Scott at the BBC and was a producer on Scott’s The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner. While their respective credits elsewhere don’t suggest strict collaboration, their collective contributions from opposite ends of the life-experience spectrum delightfully inform the interactions between Finch and Jeff.
Finch is a soft-edged surprise, too, given the past slate of director Miguel Sapochnik, who previously helmed some of the more thunderous episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Also: Don’t buy reports of additional cast members; you’ll know immediately where they might have once been, but outside of a brief flashback, this is a one-man, one-dog and two-robot show.) While Finch can sometimes feel a bit kitschy and clumsy in delivering its cold comforts (again with “American Pie”?), it’s nevertheless an effective story about palliative care for physical and emotional turbulence under tough circumstances.
It’s also not just Cast Away reskinned as sci-fi. Hanks looks so damn happy to provide love to Goodyear, with a straightforward dog-dad dedication for which those who are simpatico may be putty in this film’s hands. But in Dewey, Jeff and Goodyear, he also has three personalities against which to play, delivering one of his sturdier late-period turns. Finch is more of a crank than Hanks’s usual, partially out of necessary survival adaptations but mostly because of the experiences to which Finch wilfully closed himself off before the world ended. Hanks’s acting, and the film itself, are leagues beyond Apple TV+’s last Hanks acquisition, 2020’s flaccid Greyhound. After the double-bill of that and last year’s dust-choked dirge News of the World, it’s nice to see Hanks back in center stage with a commanding presence for the first time since 2015’s Bridge of Spies.
He’s also a good foil for Jones, whose face is never seen but whose method-madman stamp seems all over the work he’s done here as Jeff. Who knows if the explicitly esoteric Jones, say, read 12 books about AI sentience and wrote a book of lyrical essays about Jeff’s interior life before showing up on set. But what he’s delivered is a performance as seamless and outstanding as the visual effects used to mask all of his on-camera presence. Jones’s initial Jeff voice is pitched somewhere between the “Fitter Happier” hardware on Radiohead’s OK Computer and Borat’s friendly tenor of anticipation and agitation. Slowly and deftly, Jones shifts it up into a subtle facsimile of Hanks’s own affectations and inflections. Jones also lends Jeff the body language of a sullen, but sensitive, teenager who’s struggling to reconcile the inherent vulnerability of his creator and dog pal against his own impervious metal frame.
However well-intentioned, Jeff’s helpful ambitions are bound to create some problems, and Jeff certainly takes a hard road to understand humans’ capacity for deception and danger. But Finch is mercifully non-bombastic about Jeff’s lived experiences, who learns as much if not more under a parasol on a quiet roadside detour as he does in a hollowed-out building rigged by human traps. And in discovering how Goodyear came into Finch’s care, Jeff understands — and we are reminded — how hard it is for humans to abide by the non-harm directives they impart upon robots. Jeff is a creation not in Finch’s own image but in his idealized version of himself, which still has issues and will be inevitably corrupted in some way by Jeff’s coexistence with the wonderful, terrible creature known as man.
There’s a forthrightness with which Luck and Powell’s screenplay confronts a truth that the apocalypse would turn most of us into self-serving cowards without it feeling like a value judgment. It’s a compliment that Finch isn’t terribly interested in rehabilitating its titular character into some sacrificial hero or settling for platitudes about what you try to pass on before you might pass on. It just wants Finch to understand trust as deeply as Jeff eventually does, embrace the entropy of connecting with others, and also just come to the conclusion that you can unlock some mysteries of life in a simple game of fetch.