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Very few actors have the magnetism to be the only person onscreen for an entire movie. Tom Hanks is one of them. He's the sole human being in Finch, with the exception of two adults and a little girl in the background of one crucial scene. His co-stars are a dog and a robot. (He has practice acting opposite a volleyball, so this isn't exactly new territory.) That Hanks can pull it off is no surprise. What is surprising is that the robot is so credibly achieved that we forget it's a visual effect and accept it as a character – a character who can hold his own against one of our greatest living actors, no less.

Much of humanity has been wiped out, thanks to an ecological disaster that left the ozone layer “like swiss cheese.” The temperature regularly gets up beyond 140 degrees, meaning that a person's skin will fry upon mere contact with sunlight. Hanks plays Finch Weinberg, a robotics engineer who has managed to survive this catastrophe. He's ill, and builds a robot to take care of his beloved dog Goodyear after he's gone. When a major storm approaches, Finch knows he and the pooch need to leave their bunker. They hop into his modified RV, together with “Jeff” (Caleb Landry Jones, in a motion capture performance), and head across the wasteland from St. Louis to San Francisco.

Jeff is quite a creation. Finch doesn't have time to load his system up fully with information before they hit the road. Consequently, he's often very smart, but other times in need of having things explained. This leads to several funny interactions, including a bit where the robot learns to drive. Adding to the humor is Jeff's voice, which sounds like Borat fed through a computer.

This is what makes Finch work. At first, we laugh at this character as he clumsily moves around, tries to absorb new knowledge, and says crazy things. As time goes on, though, Jeff learns a lot about life from his maker. What begins as a mere directive – the dog is to be protected above all else – turns into true understanding of love and sacrifice. The movie's biggest drama comes not from watching the characters outrun a storm or break into buildings in search of supplies, it comes from witnessing how Finch ensures Jeff can properly care for Goodyear.

There's a little bit of everything here. You get comedy scenes, dramatic scenes, and action scenes, including a harrowing sequence with the gang attempting to survive a tornado. In spots, the mash-up of disparate elements makes Finch feel slightly uncertain of what it wants to be. Overall, though, it gels sufficiently due to the stellar performance from Hanks. In the movie's most powerful scene, Finch explains why Goodyear is so important to him. The actor turns that monologue into a profound mediation on the need for hope when all hope seems lost.

If we ever felt that Jeff was not real, the film would seem silly, as though Hanks' sincere work was disappearing into the ether. Landry's voicework melds with seamless special effects to ensure the robot is a true presence in the story. That, in turn, allows the Finch/Jeff relationship to register on an emotional level. Nicely directed by Miguel Sapochnik (Repo Men), Finch makes you laugh, tense up, and get a lump in your throat, all in just under two hours.

out of four

Finch is rated PG-13 for brief violent images. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.