The summer movie season of 2014 has been filled with charismatic monsters, robots, apes, and aliens… and a wealth of slack-jawed humans to gawk at them while offering nothing resembling a personality. If you’d never seen Bryan Cranston or Ken Watanabe in anything else, Godzilla certainly wouldn’t cause you to scan their IMDB pages. Cranston plays an obsessed father who dies rather stupidly (on a falling bridge, like Captain Kirk) early on, leaving his son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kickass) to carry us through the remainder of the movie. Taylor-Johnson is one of those magical military types who just happens methodically through every major plot point (despite the story taking place across half the planet) and seems to be the only character with the powers of perception. He can command fellow soldiers with nothing more than a convincing speech. Of course, the titular monster does not disappoint, and the movie soars whenever he shows up. Godzilla obviously can’t talk, and thus can’t explain to the audience who he is, but it becomes clear through his actions. By the end of the film, Godzilla is a far better character than the humans who marvel at him. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but we spend much more time with the bland humans.
In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Mark Wahlberg spreads his arms in “come at me, bro” pose and proclaims, “I think we found a Transformer!” and, within five seconds, returns to his sleepy Mark Wahlberg demeanor, conversing reasonably with a giant talking robot. He occasionally reminds us that he’s an inventor who invents inventions. He has a picture-perfect teen daughter with a great ass, and she has an annoying boyfriend who races cars and says things like, “I’m not here to save your daughter. You’re here to help save my girlfriend.” Please. Fucking. Die. (He doesn’t). Stanley Tucci almost saves the day as a hilarious Steve Jobs-type who isn’t as superficially greedy as he first appears. Almost.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderful movie, mostly for its immersive production design, dark themes, and beautifully written ape characters. I was caught up in the impossible task of Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t leadership. I sympathized with Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was irrevocably scarred by human experimentation, physically and emotionally. I even liked Caesar’s teenaged son, Blue Eyes, who is torn between his father’s restraint and Koba’s call to action. The humans are far less impressive. Jason Clarke calmly walks into a village populated by super intelligent apes, and judging by his slightly parted lips, he’s mildly impressed. We never learn much about him other than he had a wife who fell victim to the catastrophic virus that wiped out most of humanity, but that’s no big deal because he replaced her with a reserved Keri Russell, who looks really hot without makeup. Russell’s character is a nurse whose skills come in handy at the perfect moment, and that’s about it. They sleep side-by-side in a tent, which would indicate they probably do the sex from time to time, but I’m not really sure because there isn’t any chemistry between them. These two are accompanied by an awkward teen, a token black guy, and an asshole. Gary Oldman does his best with a few emotional scenes, conveying the pain of loss, before he ultimately becomes a plot device in the climax. Thankfully the humans aren’t the real focus, but the movie could have gone from a 4 star to a 5 star if I’d been more invested in their plight.
An exception to this bland humans in sci-fi blockbusters rule is Edge of Tomorrow, which many people skipped because Tom Cruise is just too crazy (unlike most actors, who are the picture of sanity). It’s clear from the first scene that Cruise’s character is a loathsome coward whose one survival skill is turning on the charm to get whatever he wants. There is a Scrooge element here, as with Groundhog Day (which this movie is clearly a sci-fi remake of). However, the stakes are far higher than that film, with a creatively designed alien race attempting to wipe out our planet. Cruise evolves as he is forced to relive each day until he gets it right. His many deaths can be amusing, because we know he’s coming right back, and watching him fail and adapt is surprisingly endearing. We learn a lot about this guy through his desperate attempts to chart the proper path through a very deadly day. By the conclusion, he is a vastly different person from the coward at the beginning. His chemistry sizzles with Emily Blunt, a sergeant who has experienced the same day-repeating condition. Because of her battle-hardened bitterness, every new detail we learn about her feels revelatory, no matter how small. Edge of Tomorrow features human character development through action, which is something all of the above movies generally lack.
Bland human characters in sci-fi are nothing new, of course, but I’m tempted to blame this alarming resurgence on Avatar, a massive success that Hollywood is constantly rewarded for replicating. Sam Worthington’s paraplegic marine, Jake Sully, seems intentionally one-dimensional, so any given audience member can fill his shoes, much like playing a “character” in a first person shooter video game. But movies are not video games. We are removed from the character onscreen. Movies tell us a story, and a story without characters isn’t worth telling.
Note: X-Men: Days of Future Past contains a wealth of interesting characters, but these aren’t really “normal” human beings, so I did not count this film.