After kicking off with a heartwarming montage that indicates a plague has wiped out most of mankind, the newly released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up not with its human survivors but with the intelligent primates, who’ve set up an idyllic pan-simian community out in the woods. Meanwhile, this summer’s Transformers: Age of Extinction cheerily soldiers on without Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, the main character of the first three films, giving his absence nary a mention (not even from his bestie Bumblebee) as he’s replaced with a new lead, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). And though Godzilla has an ensemble cast, the people in its story largely got in the way of what was really a battle between giant monsters who barely noticed the ant-like beings scuttling at their feet, frantically trying to avoid getting squished.
Though this string of summer blockbusters still features traditional big names (Wahlberg) as well as some more offbeat choices (Godzilla’s graced by French icon Juliette Binoche, while Apes has Aussie up-and-comer Jason Clarke), they all play second fiddle to their non-human co-stars, visual effects, motion capture, and vocal performances, all of which come across as just as real as the people in the frame…and usually a lot more interesting. Technologically, we’ve certainly reached a point where a film can be primarily trusted to a creation like Apes’ Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis (who also consulted on Godzilla) — the enhanced chimp has an arc more dramatic and soulful than any of the human cast members. In all, the movies have never felt so indifferent to humanity.
The idea that we need humans to take center stage in order for audiences to relate to a narrative that’s not all that much about them seems to be losing its grip on these major franchises where people may come and go, but Optimus Prime will be around forever. It’s a shifting balance most awkwardly handled by Godzilla, which scatters the Brody family — parents played by Binoche and Bryan Cranston, their son and his wife played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, and their child (Carson Bolde) —across the globe to handily intersect with the kaiju as they trample their way across it. They’ve been assigned a minimal amount of personality (i.e. daddy issues and conspiracy obsessions), but they’re mostly there to offer points of view on the monsters, to be a place to which the film can jump as a M.U.T.O. attacks Honolulu or Godzilla finally makes his way to San Francisco.
It’s clear Godzilla isn’t about the Brodys, or about Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as Expositional Scientists or David Strathairn as Military Jerk. It’s about a giant lizard battling two equally giant bug-like things, and its humans feel unusually in the way, even for a movie that’s mainly about cities getting knocked down. Humanity doesn’t just drag down the film, which is considerably less lively when its monsters aren’t on screen; they’re a drag on the story, unnecessary to the disaster except to give it stakes. They even cause their own problems — Taylor-Johnson’s character Ford spends the last part of the film trying to undo something that was entirely the fault of an ill-advised military plan. Instead, the movie’s hero is Godzilla, who sets nature back in balance and then trudges back into the ocean to roar another day in one of the sequels already lined up. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the next film in the rebooted series featuring few or none of the same human characters — they’re just there to remind us of the scale of the creature for which the movie’s named.
Transformers: Age of Extinction doesn’t join this trend so much as cement the fact that people have never been the point of Michael Bay’s mammoth franchise. The films shucked off love interest Megan Fox after the second installment and slotted in model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in what seemed, at the time, like an unfortunate statement on eye candy being interchangeable in Bay’s hyper-shiny world, regardless of whether or not they have acting experience. But in going on without LaBeouf as well, the series confirms that it’s no longer the tale of a kid who discovers his kick-ass new car is an even more kick-ass robot from space; it’s one of an ongoing intergalactic battle in which humanity will occasionally get caught.
In taking over for Sam as protagonist, though Wahlberg’s Cade digs Optimus Prime out of where he’s been holed up at the start of the film, Cade and his crew are, like the Godzilla characters, largely there for structural purposes. They’re faces to attach to a semi-coherent larger story about Autobots, Decepticons, Dinobots, Creators, and bounty hunters. Transformer battles have laid waste to various cities throughout the series, and Cade and company feel included to provide flesh and blood concerns in place of the presumably thousands of people who die off screen in these awesome spectacles of destruction. Wahlberg may shoot his purloined alien weapon and participate in a chase down the side of a Hong Kong apartment complex, but it’s Optimus Prime riding Grimlock that people have really come to see.
The remnants of mankind in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes aren’t so easily discarded — they’re delineated, they’re capable but traumatized, and they’ve seen that people can revert to animals themselves when resources get scarce. But while Malcolm (Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) hold out hope for humanity’s comeback and for peace with the primates, they’re not the ones we really worry about. People are desperate when the film begins, decimated by a disease of its own accidental making, and, as one of the survivors notes, the apes are far better suited for a world without electricity and the other comfortable trappings of Homo sapien civilization.
By starting with the simian community, with its hard-won stability and educational process (“apes do not kill apes”), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes naturally curves its sympathies toward Caesar and his crew. It is, after all, their planet that’s dawning, and their tentative paradise to be tarnished. It’s easier to side with them, even when they’re tending toward the villainous — the resentments that the primates, like longtime research subject Koba, bear are a lot more justified than the ones harbored by frightened humans, like Kirk Acevedo’s Carver, who blames the apes for the “simiam flu.” While Godzilla and Transformers build their human stories around those of their larger-than-life characters, the Apes franchise has revealed itself to be Caesar’s journey all along with the humans (Malcolm, James Franco’s Will in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) passing through his story, rather than the other way around.
Plenty of summer movies still rest on the performances and charm of their actors — 22 Jump Street would never work without the unexpected comedic chemistry of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. But this season has suggested that film has hit a turning point, at least when it comes to major spectacle, where the people are receding into the distance, secondary or just set dressing alongside the digital creations that loom so large on screen.