For an hour or so, I wondered why exactly National Treasure Tom Hanks would take “Finch,” a sometimes cutesy, often maudlin End Times tale pairing him with a robot.
Then he gets to the “telling anecdote,” the tale his character tells to Jeff, the robot of his own creation, a story of the ways civilization ends and the humanity that disappears with it.
So I get it — a pre-pandemic one-hander with a little “Silent Running” here, some “Wall-E” there and the fear that it could go all “Omega Man” at any minute.
It’s a kid-friendly thriller of the sci-fi apocalypse variety, forlorn but engaging enough to sit through. Barely. High stakes, thin on action and heavy on sentiment, it takes “Short Circuit” to doomsday and reaches for tears — here and there — as it does.
In the title role, Hanks is the Last Man in St. Louis, scavenging for food in the still-standing supermarkets, minimarts and theaters, holing up in the factory where he once worked.
Finch tools about in a massive Komatsu dump truck, sings along to “American Pie” (“This’ll be the day that I die!”) and gets around outside in a haz-mat suit, customized to inform him when the UV radiation and simple heat in the atmosphere are more than he could tolerate.
He has a custom-built helper robot, the four-wheeled, silent and basket-equipped Dewey. And he has a dog. Much of their scavenging involves the search for cans of dog food.
Finch and Dewey download books from the company library into his next piece of tech, a walking robot. He finishes it just after the latest supercell passes through the dust bowl that was St. Louis — a city — like the world around it, baked, burned and parched out of existence after the ozone layer gave out.
Coming to life, the machine has questions. “Where is everybody?” And where are those “holes in the sky” that make it “like Swiss cheese,” that Finch talks about?
Finch takes the time to answer those questions. But he knows they need to move on. With this new gadget, he loads a customized RV so that they can all make their getaway. “West” it is. San Francisco.
The robot learns to talk, and sounds like Ukrainian comic Yakov Smirnoff impersonating Stephen Hawking. Later, the voice morphs into the cheery boyishness of Caleb Landry Jones.
Finch gives the robot “four prime directives,” adapting Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.”
“A robot cannot harm a human, or cause a human to be harmed by its inaction.”
Finch frets over Directive Four the most.
“Protect the welfare of the dog.“
As they make their way through the wastelands towards the West, Finch tells stories, urges the robot to imitate him and “take initiative, and tries to give the machine — which chooses to name itself “Jeff” — “some common (human) sense.”
There are perils out there, and not all of them involve the holes in the sky.
“I know you were born yesterday, but it’s time for you to grow up.“
Series TV director Miguel Sapochnik doesn’t fret about borrowing the endless stream of visuals and situations from other “end of the world” tales, from “Omega Man” to “Zombieland.”
There aren’t many dramatic incidents breaking up this road-trip odyssey, and the few that there are are from most every other movie we’ve ever seen in this genre.
Hanks makes a sad, stoic lead. And the robots are “Silent Running” cute enough that we worry for their safety as much as we worry for Finch’s. But maybe not as much as we worry for the dog’s.
With real apocalypses staring down at us in every direction, movies like “Finch” take on a fatalism that they sometimes lacked in earlier eras. The threats are as real as they ever were. But now, we can see that we’ve become too dense to take action to prevent them. That adds a resigned acceptance of the doom we see on screen, and we see coming on the evening news.
So yeah, it’s “kid friendly” in all the usual ways. But how often is the family in the mood for a cutesy bummer of a movie?
Rating: PG-13 for brief, violent images
Cast: Tom Hanks, the voice of Caleb Landry Jones
Credits: Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, scripted by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell. An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 1:55