Emily Carmichael loves monsters. And she writes about them lovingly. In Carmichael’s world, the monsters are just as human, if not more human, than the less scaly characters. In 2015, she wrote and directed the short film Stryka about a reptilian woman who works as a professional criminal in a futuristic Brooklyn. In the movie, garbage trucks humming through Sunset Park hover just above the ground, and bikes operate on LED wheels. Stryka, who has blue spikes emerging from her head and speaks in a digital-sounding language, is the emotional center of the story. Frightened of failure, Stryka indirectly fractures her relationship to her partner-in-crime Callen (Rupert Friend). In order to pull off her next heist, though, she needs Callen.
“I like creatures. I like exploring the other,” Carmichael tells me over the phone from Brooklyn, where she resides. (Rest assured, the garbage trucks do not hover in Brooklyn.) She adds, “I did not set out to produce a body of work that highlights romance between people and humanoid animals. It just sort of happened that way.”
Incidental or not, this habit has come in handy. The Harvard graduate is a co-writer on Pacific Rim: Uprising, which opens today, and on Jurassic World 3, which won’t arrive in theaters until 2021. Both are monster movies not unlike Stryka — it’s just, these movies have massive budgets and must contend with massive expectations. These credits have made her a genre-world contender. When earlier this year Star Wars Episode IX was looking for a new director, THR suggested Carmichael would be a good fit. The Pacific Rim series chronicles a world plagued by massive reptiles called kaiju, while the Jurassic World series explores humanity’s desperate affection for monsters. Both are Carmichael-style stories on an elephantine scale. (Carmichael works with a co-writer on both — Kira Snyder on Pacific Rim and Derek Connolly on Jurassic World — and notes that she worked heavily with Uprising director Steven MckNight as well. Screenwriting at this scale is not a solitary pursuit.)
Without giving away too many spoilers, Pacific Rim: Uprising explores humanity’s relationships to the kaiju in ways the first movie did not. What happens, the movie ponders, when giant monsters become a part of a culture? In one scene, a band of “kaiju worshippers” protest an industry summit. In another, a piece of kaiju (if that doesn’t make sense, I urge you to see the movie) enjoys the music of Foreigner.
“We definitely had ideas for how we wanted the sequel to be different from the first one,” Carmichael says, adding, “Definitely having a fresh tone and having a lot of humor in the movie was really important to all of us.” Humor in big-budget movies requires tricky maneuvers. In the case of Uprising, Carmichael and her co-writer utilized those massive creatures. I should add at this point that Pacific Rim employs two types of creatures: big reptiles and big robots called jaegers. In the sequel, one small, Groot-looking jaeger goes by “Scrapper.”
“John [Boyega] has that great line in the trailer for Pacific Rim [Uprising] where he says, 'We found ourselves at war with monsters and the monsters we built from ourselves.' So, thinking about the jaegers as creatures is fun,” Carmichael points out. “The jaegers have a lot of personality, and when you're writing those action scenes where somebody's piloting the jaeger, you'll write the scene which is interior con pod, which is your pilots of the jaeger. And then you'll have your exterior shot, which will describe what the jaeger is doing in relation to what the pilots are doing...It was fun to write for the jaegers.” Each jaeger has two pilots, who must “drift” their minds in order to operate the machine. The brain power of one individual is simply too weak to operate an entire jaeger. (Unless you’re talking about Scrapper, who is very small.)
Carmichael and Snyder are the first women to tackle Pacific Rim, a franchise that was initially criticized for failing the Bechdel-Wallace test, which requires the women characters in the film to interact without talking about a man. In 2013, Vulture said the movie had a “woman problem.” But fans of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the film’s woman protagonist, argued that the test wasn’t a fair assessment of the movie. As a fan of the original film, I count myself in the latter camp: Ultimately, the movie did more good for women — and Asian representation — than it did harm. The women in the first film do not operate as sexual objects, but as warriors. Could there have been more of them? Absolutely.
“The [Bechdel Wallace] test has been acknowledged to be useful but imperfect,” Carmichael admits. One of its flaws is that the test only analyzes named characters. Unnamed characters are just as important. Watching Pacific Rim: Uprising, I was startled to see that one laboratory scene featured almost entirely women scientists.
“I think a really important thing for all screenwriters to bear in mind is to think about the balance of your characters. And think about all of your female characters,” Carmichael adds. “Not just your beautiful badass female protagonist. But think about your ally characters, who can be women. And your villainous henchmen, who can be women. To see women in supporting roles is extremely meaningful. Even to see women in the background, and women in crowds, and to see women as extras and women in background roles.”
Carmichael name drops Black Panther and Thor: Ragnorak, both action movies that amassed over $300 million in domestic box office. “Black Panther was such a glorious movie, such a liberating movie to see. And for me personally, the character of Okoye, the general [meant a lot],” she says. “She's just so cool from start to finish. And she doesn't have to sacrifice herself to save the protagonist. Her storyline is never subjugated to the main storyline.” Not to mention, the film’s signature techie is a woman. Then, in Thor, the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum) has a bodyguard named Topaz (Rachel House), who also happens to be a woman.
“It's just incidental — the role is not about her being a woman. It's just sometimes, the main general of the crazed lunatic who is pursuing you in spaceships over the surface of an unfamiliar world is gonna be a woman, and that's normal,” Carmichael says.
“My friend, by the end of this franchise, we are gonna see Bryce [Dallas Howard] in all types of different shoes,” she shares.
In some ways, Carmichael seems like a deus ex machina for the male-heavy world of genre filmmaking. Brutally accomplished and all-knowing when it comes to genre movies, she’s the perfect monster to swoop in and rescue these franchises, à la Euripides’ Medea. She’s not here as a salve — Pacific Rim: Uprising might not get a perfect scorecard for its treatment of women, thanks to a largely pointless love triangle — but she’s certainly ready to throw us all off balance.
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