The misunderstood core of Finch
The latest Tom Hanks movie, Finch, has an image problem. I had no idea this movie existed until recently, and once I found it was only on Apple's streaming platform, I was skeptical at best. After watching the trailer, I was very intrigued with the premise - an aging man living in a world destroyed by a cataclysmic event builds a robot to take care of his beloved dog after his inevitable passing. The story presented in the trailer grasped my interest and, I don't usually do this, but I went over to the ratings on IMDB just to check things out. Many of the scores there pegged the movie as middling in quality. Others were saying that it was downright bad. More than a few of the reviews accused the movie of not being what they expected. Perhaps some saw the action sequences in the trailer and the "post-apocalyptic" tag and assumed the movie would be a mix of Mad Max and Castaway. It is a fair assumption, and here we come across a big issue with the perception for the movie. While it is set after the apocalypse, its story is largely about something else. The end of the world drives events, of course, but most of the time it is a backdrop, a setting, something that encompasses the story. To illustrate my point, I'd like you to think what the difference between setting and genre. In the case of genre, let's take westerns as an example, you expect to see people hardened by the times, ready to shoot each other at the drop of a hat. Outlaws hatching plans to free their comrades from jail or robbing stagecoaches and trains. Clint Eastwood's scowling face and narrowed eyes looking at you from the screen. On the other hand, setting refers to where things are happening. For example, the past, the future, prehistoric times, after a cataclysmic natural or unnatural event, you see where I'm going with this. In the case of Finch, the setting seems to have sparked expectations in viewers that the story cannot fulfill. Tom Hanks' journey spans an America destroyed by the sun, but the tale it tells is not about that. It is about accepting the mistakes you've made. It is about the pressures of being a guardian, parent, and creator. It is about fatherhood and responsibility in a world where there is barely anyone to hold you accountable. If any of those pique your interest, I'd suggest you give Finch a try. And one last note before I dive into spoiler territory, please keep in mind that from beginning to end, the movie remains somber. As with most of Tom Hanks' movies, happy times are tinged with a much-needed, balancing pinch of sorrow.
Right then, onto the meat of the story. Our title character, Finch, is dying from radiation poisoning. Keeping to himself and being fully self-sustained, he is faced with the problem of who will take care of his beloved dog after his passing. The director shows us where Finch is living, which, conveniently, is the building where he worked before the end of the world. Using his technical expertise, he is building a robotic caretaker. A machine that has the vital task of protecting his only living companion. When he finishes his creation, we get our first glimpse of Finch's mind and how he feels about the human race. After successfully switching on the robotic caretaker, Finch asks it to recite the directives it is governed by. The machine starts off with the usual suspects, namely Asimov's first law of robotics - A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Then Finch asks the robot to recite its fourth directive, which states that in his absence, his dog is to be taken care of and protected at all costs. The fourth directive supersedes the rest, thus putting his canine companion above any human life in the eyes of Finch. The dialog even spells it out for us very clearly when he asks, "So you understand how important this dog is to me?"
Having driven the point home, Finch resumes building the robotic guardian. Feeding it data from any book he can get his hands on and scan in an attempt to give it even a fraction of the knowledge humans had gathered. A superstorm brewing just outside St. Louis forces Finch to cut the data transfer at 73%. While getting ready for the journey, we see a very endearing sequence where Finch teaches the robot to walk and turn. Much like a newborn, the machine has no concept of forward movement. With rhythmic, measured steps, the robot joins Finch and the dog in a specially-refitted RV, and they set off into the scorching day. For the next hour and a half, we see the trio's journey west towards San Francisco. The closer they get to their destination, the more feeble Finch becomes. Each time he has a bout of sickness, his robotic companion has a growth spurt, becoming more and more humanlike. Here I'd like to point out a subtle detail that I feel made the robot angle incredibly believable. If you've watched other media that has thinking machines in it, you might have noticed that a robot remains machinelike only as long as the story feels it's convenient enough. Imagine you are told that this non-organic life form was born one week ago and has perfect human mannerisms and talking patterns. (Side note: In the context of this movie, we are never told or shown that the robot can assimilate real-world information that fast.)
Finch isn't like that. It takes its time to show you that the caregiver is not like us, and in doing so, the script greatly humanizes it while it does its best to behave and sound human. Only at the very end do we see the machine moving and talking, roughly, of course, like a human. This progression is vital to ground us in the story. By growing better at being like us, we see the robot grow up as a human child would. And that's the hidden beauty of this film, the father-son story hidden under post-apocalyptic marketing. In its heart, Finch is a story about fatherhood and responsibility. Finch creates a machine that looks to him for guidance and answers, and at the start, he naively thinks he's dealing with a robot trying to learn, but as we follow their journey, we see that he's done something much more. He's built a machine that wants to learn to care.
END OF SPOILERS
Finch is an odd movie. To a lot of people it seems to feel like just another post-apocalyptic flick, but this time Tom Hanks is the protagonist. And that is true, to an extent. But it is also a heartwarming, bittersweet movie about a man doing everything in his power to ensure the protection of what he loves, all the while unwittingly becoming a father to a very unlikely son.