Sci-Fi films that attempt to cram a lot of “real life” into bizarre, often impossible, circumstances aren’t rare, in fact, it’s mostly the point of the genre, but efforts with almost no one in them don’t come around a lot. Finch finds, well Finch (Tom Hanks), in a post-apocalyptic world almost entirely on his own, and in such a scenario you better have an actor that can do anything.
Conditions are worse than in your average “destroyed world” adventure, and we watch Finch exploring an empty city in a radiation suit with his dog and a robotic cart he clearly made himself. Not only can people now not be exposed to sunlight, but weather events are now nightmares on a new scale. Most importantly, food is getting scarce.
Finch will before long tell us that other people are to be feared, but he tools around the city in his giant dump-truck clearly not expecting to run into any. As the movie opens, Finch goes about his routine as though quite accustomed to his fate as the last man on Earth.
Once back in his compound, which he’s clearly spent years in, we see him get to work on his ultimate project, building a true A.I. robot. He’s pieced together a sort of Rube Goldberg assembly line in order to “program” information into it by “processing” books into its memory, and he’s nearing the completion of his effort.
As his robot first wakes, Finch learns that a dozen storm systems are converging on him and they are going to make life impossible for so long that there is simply no way he’ll be able to continue to explore for food. Thus starts the road trip to oblivion as Finch and his crew set off to find somewhere else to exist, braving the unknown, as it turns out, because Finch is determined to keep his dog alive.
The film sets the stage for a harsh and harrowing experience that doesn’t exactly come to pass, and there’s something potentially brilliant about that. Instead of the environment truly serving as some danger bearing down because extremes are about to wreak some havoc, it is simply the catalyst and explanation for who Finch has become. Bad people are out there, but you may or may not ever experience them. Together with a new sentience born into the world under his watch, the whole thing serves as a way to give us all of parenthood in a few days, and when it works, it’s an amazing dissection of storytelling.
The robot, Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who doesn’t get a name for quite a while, comes into the world with a lot of facts and very little understanding of anything. He learns instantly, sort of, but interacts with the world and everything in it like a child… then like a teenager, with a surprising amount of what that might entail. Either Finch has programmed in a certain amount of angst, ego, and self-doubt, or that’s just inherent in any intelligence, artificial or otherwise.
As such explorations of humanity are wont to wander, Finch turns out to just be all of us, torn apart by motivations that may not make a lot of sense, pressured by mortality and dangers to himself and his loved ones, whatever the dangers, whatever the “ones.” He may be “condensed” in some sense, with an eerie lack of attachment to anything that doesn’t really matter, but he’s spent years in the crucible.
What makes it work is Hanks’ ability to deliver the background of a character without trying. He’s the guy who has been doing this for years, and the guy who has only the precise motivations that are revealed. It’s in everything he does, whether it’s his reaction to a noise or his expression while he’s driving, or his responses to “someone” who won’t listen to him.
Where it nearly falls apart is that the film takes too long near the end explaining who and why he is, when Hanks already gave it to us and we didn’t need the pamphlet with bullet points. The reveal works well enough in theory, but it goes on longer than necessary and tries too hard to force a reaction instead of just trusting the road trip to actually build into one.