We haven’t done a Great Moments in Bad Storytelling in a while, but then I watched ‘Finch’ last night. Finch is a great moment in bad storytelling. Never let the big boys tell you that you don’t have what it takes. Even well-meaning A-list actors are capable of clunkers and Finch clunks harder than the robot star of the show. Let’s see what we can learn from Finch in this ‘great moments in bad storytelling.’
Some up-front housekeeping. Is Finch a bad movie? No, it’s a great movie – two hours of adventure, great SFX and some time-honored scifi tropes. Like Super Mario Brothers (currently shaking up the box office), Finch has many loveable qualities that enable us to overlook its flaws.
But there’s something missing about Finch and it didn’t take long before I realized: it’s the storytelling, stupid. I look carefully at movies like Finch to see what they can teach us about storytelling, since storytelling is a craft I am working to develop. With me so far? Good, let’s begin:
What’s Finch About?
Tom Hanks (Finch) is one of the few surviving humans in a post-solar flare apocalyptic earth. Dying of an undisclosed ailment (radiation poisoning?), Finch creates an advanced humanoid robot companion to care for his dog once he is gone. Finch feeds the sentient robot volumes of encyclopedic knowledge, including a manual for training and caring for dogs. Despite his condition worsening, Finch tries to teach the robot ‘Jeff’ some valuable lessons about life and how to protect Goodyear, the dog. Eventually, Finch dies but Jeff and Goodyear continue to San Francisco. They find the city habitable but deserted, and set off to find surviving humans beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.
So What’s Wrong With It?
Robots? Post-apocalyptic survival? Tom Hanks? Baby, I’m in! The movie *should* have been a cakewalk for a scifi nerd like me. Twenty minutes later, I had that same expression you get when you’re seven years old and your aunt feeds you Jell-O salad.
“You love Jell-O!” she says, but it’s that disgusting 60s-era trailer park rec room party Jell-O salad with ancient relic-style chunks of tuna, pimientos, and cucumbers. So many unanswered questions, so many missed opportunities. Finch opened some core childhood scifi wounds for me – let the viewer’s brain fill in details, know what you’re messing with when you mess with it, talk about something real, make me think, and talk to me like an intelligent human being. In many ways, Finch misses those marks and falls victim to the ‘Corporate Mandatory Entertainment, LLC’-mindset of modern scifi.
So yeah, I came away feeling profoundly disappointed. I feel like Tom Hanks’ character was pitched as ‘Tony Stark meets Chuck from Castaway‘ and boy, do we feel it. Finch doesn’t seem to have any particular motivation beyond driving the plot forward.
Plus, Finch left me with so many questions. Why was Finch a single man all his life? Why did he want to survive the post-solar flare apocalypse? Why did he choose to focus all his energies into building robots instead of re-building some form of civilization? What were his greatest regrets beyond that third-act confessional where he talks about meeting Goodyear the dog?
What Should Finch Have Done Differently?
In a nutshell – Finch could have done better. But compare that with other stories and ask yourself – what *should* they have done differently? For example, you could ask: “Well gee, Jackson – you dislike Finch so much. What’s the difference between Finch and, say, WALL-E?”
I’ll explain. WALL-E didn’t spend the first third of the book on WALL-E’s origin story. Andrew Stanton, WALL-E’s director, made skillful use of diegetic storytelling to inform us about how WALL-E lived and his motivation only arrived when EVE did. Finch’s Miguel Sapochnik wants us to believe Tom Hanks wanted nothing more out of life than listen to Dean Martin records and die of cancer. I didn’t buy it – I didn’t connect emotionally with the story.
Why is that important? Audiences will forgive all kinds of logical inconsistencies in your storytelling if you connect with their emotions. All the corporate quality control in the world can’t replace that simple, profound truth: Make your audience feel something!
Finch missed the mark, despite doing well in many ways. I want to congratulate Sapochnik and Hanks for delivering a quality post-apoc movie in the middle of a pandemic movie – that in itself is a triumph.
No matter who we are, no matter how big we are, we’re all in the same game. What game? We’re trying to figure out that right mixture of money, time, and stardust to tell a story that our readers/audience can relate to. It ain’t easy – so let’s all work to learn from each other.