Year: 2021
Production Co: Amblin Partners
Studio: Universal
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Writer: Craig Luck/Ivor Powell
Cast: Tom Hanks, Caleb Landry Jones

As soon as this film ended I realised that, like John Hillcoat's 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it's a fairly plain metaphor for parenting. The lead character, Finch (Hanks) creates a life, then has to go through the joy of teaching it how to be in the world and the agony of knowing he has to one day leave it behind to fend for itself.

But unlike real life, those joys and anxieties are heightened by the fact that he knows he's leaving his child sooner rather than later, and that the world is more dangerous than the child he creates is intellectually equipped to handle.

We meet Finch in a dust-blown, post apocalyptic landscape, driving around in a huge industrial vehicle and wearing the equivalent of a high tech hazmat suit that warns him of the radiation and UV ray danger outside, the result of a solar flare that destroyed the ozone layer and rendered the Earth all but uninhabitable years before.

He's systematically scrounging for supplies with his dog, Goodyear, and a small articulated robot, Dewey, before returning to his home base in a huge abandoned power station complex, reading, listening to music and working on a more humanoid robotic helper. A few nights into the story, he succeeds, the advanced AI coming to life, ready to be implanted into a robot body.

When Finch realises a supersized storm is approaching that will wipe the area out, spelling doom for he and his new friends, there's no time to waste. The robot's intended purpose was to protect Goodyear when Finch is gone, and he intended to spend a decent amount of time teaching it about the world and downloading the contents of human knowledge into its memory.

But they have to pack up and leave in a big hurry in their modified RV and try and get over the Rocky mountains, which Finch believes the storm won't cross.

The cross country trip gives Finch, Jeff (the name the robot gives itself) and Goodyear the chance to both bond and drive each other a bit nuts as Jeff learns not just how to run and how to drive but what's really important, Finch gradually giving in to the radiation sickness that will soon do him in.

There are a few action set pieces like the hospital and chase scene where Jeff uses his initiative to tend to Finch without knowing he's walking into a trap set by other survivors, but most of it is just the soft, slow story of beings finding friendship and understanding.

To Hanks' credit, he doesn't play it up for cloying sympathy. Finch is a stoic, serious guy who doesn't give in to high emotion and Hanks doesn't gurn for the camera, instead letting the story and script do the work for him, so the movie as a whole contains only as much charm as it needs.

And director Miguel Sapochnik keeps the saccharine levels appreciably low – even though Jeff is a child in all but flesh and the production design gives him a cute and inquisitive visage, it never devolves into a family film.

The visuals are all well executed too. Where Jeff isn't handled with in-camera puppetry, the VFX depicting him is pretty seamless, and although it's not Hanks' most successful role – or film – he always deserves credit for working with untested filmmakers. The director is an Argentinian TV guy I'd never heard of.

Ironically, turning it into a sickly sweet family film might have worked better for its position in the market, with the reviews all pretty tepid.

The tamping down of whatever emotional slush it could have contained makes me think it was instead aimed at a pretty serious sci-fi audience, and the problem is that other (and better) films have done element like the dystopian wasteland, the human/robot relationship even the parenting metaphor before.

And of course there was no box office to speak of – Universal greenlit it a couple of years before the pandemic but when it was ready at the height of lockdowns it was instead sold to Apple (like a similarly unlucky Hanks vehicle, Sony film Greyhound).

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