The year is undetermined, possibly a not-so-distant future. The place is St. Louis, Missouri, but now it’s just a desolate and lifeless landscape where the city used to exist. Only the husks of the great buildings remain. A man in an elaborate suit with a breathing apparatus is walking through an abandoned store. It’s clear that he is not looking for signs of life, only canned goods. As he finds some dog food, he realizes that a huge scirocco-like storm is coming and he needs to get out of there. He quickly gets into the truck, and heads to what appears to be a scientific or military complex. He escapes the storm in the nick of time, and proceeds to take the armored suit off, and wash himself thoroughly.
The man is Finch Weinberg (Tom Hanks), in Miguel Sapochnik’s “Finch,” now streaming on AppleTV. Finch lives mostly alone in a post-apocalyptic America. He has few companions, namely a dog named Goodyear, and a small, unsophisticated robot, Dewey. Despite the fact that it has been 10 years since a solar flare destroyed the ozone layer, and the planet is basically uninhabitable because it’s usually 150 degrees Fahrenheit outside, Finch has a state of the art computer and robotics laboratory.
It’s clear that Finch is dying, and his only focus is creating a humanoid robot for one purpose: to take care of Goodyear after his death. The project is completed, and “Jeff” the humanoid robot is “born.” He is good natured, kind, and wishes to learn everything. Initially, Finch is happy about the outcome of his project but his happiness is very brief, as is his kindness toward Jeff. Things get rougher when this band of unlikely companions sets out for San Francisco. There is no way of telling why California would be any better than the rest of the country and the planet, but Finch is driven by a sentimental memento: a postcard, mailed in San Francisco, from his father who abandoned Finch and his mother when the former was a child.
Finch and his companions are embarking on a journey that proves to be rather uninteresting. At first, it’s not clear whether Finch is the last man on Earth but later, we find out that there are still people alive, foraging, and trying to survive but apparently none of these people are to be trusted. If it’s not hot temperatures or strange sand storms, the people represent yet some other kind of threat. According to Finch, it is a “dog eat dog” world out there.
Although it’s impossible to tell what could happen to planet Earth in the far away future, other aspects of the film are quite plausible, namely the symbolism of a journey, as well as human relationships to a machine. But despite the visual success of the film, the writers of “Finch” miss one opportunity after another to ask the most poignant question: What does it mean to be a human being?
The character of Finch faces many challenges but most of these fights with the cruelty of nature carry no meaning. Although there are some comic moments, especially in Finch’s interaction with Jeff, it is the cynical nature of Finch that ends up ruling the entire film. It’s unsurprising that a man who has spent the last 10 years surviving through the desolation of the American landscape with no signs of hope would fail to be upbeat or happy. Many films and stories have been told from a perspective of a cynical and hopeless man, but in order for such a character to have any meaning at all, he must engage with deeper questions about humanity’s role in this world, be it spiritually, intellectually, politically, and yes, even ecologically. But “Finch” does not accomplish any of this.
Some might say that it’s impossible to make an interesting film with a character who is essentially the last man on Earth, or at the very least, spends most of his time alone. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Tom Hanks’ earlier role as Chuck Noland in Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film “Cast Away” is a perfect example. Here, Hanks plays a man who survives a plane crash only to find himself on a deserted island. Much like Robinson Crusoe, he has to fend for himself, fight and overcome nature, but not descend into an animalistic way of being.
In “Cast Away,” Hanks brilliantly explores questions of time, death, suicide, and why man has the desire to survive. As an audience, we care about Chuck Noland because he cares about himself. Even when it seems that he will lose all hope, he takes the final risk and enters into the deep ocean without knowing whether he will survive.
The writers of “Finch” should not be criticized for creating a different character from Zemeckis’ Chuck Nolan, but at the same time, they haven’t challenged themselves or Hanks to wholly enter into the situation. Much like today’s barrenness in artistic expression and intellectual discourse, this film exemplifies the spiritual malaise that was present even before the COVID phenomenon entered the stage. Finch doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, and even his desire to build a robot in order to provide a caretaker for the dog is often joyless. Jeff is treated with contempt that could be geared toward some other events but the writers give us no indication of what they might be. In addition, Hanks seems to be uninterested in giving his very best as an actor.
Every detail of life before the solar flare is vague or trite (“these are postcards,” explains Finch to Jeff. “People used to send these before this thing called the internet.”). Without any reference point, it is difficult to grasp and hold onto the meaning of who Finch is and might be. But this still isn’t the biggest issue with the film. There is no glimpse into human nature or soul, and all attempts at it are extremely simplistic.
Exploring the character stranded in the middle of an island or a desert can be done beautifully. In addition to “Cast Away,” there is also Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece, The Little Prince. In “Finch,” one opportunity after another was missed. (The director did say that there were three more characters in the film, but they were cut from the film because he wanted to make it more upbeat. It’s not clear what the specifics were but perhaps the film would then make more sense).
“Finch” is not a depressing or bleak film. Rather, it strangely thrives on the meaninglessness of life. The character of Finch is not a curious man, and if he asked any philosophical questions about the meaning of life in those 10 years of the apocalypse, then we are not privy to any of them. Jeff is our vessel to find out something more about Finch but Finch is unwilling to open up his interior life to Jeff. As a result, he doesn’t open up to us either, and we are left with a possibly good outline of a story but one that is woefully undeveloped. Yet another sign of our artistically arid times.