Pacific Rim: The Black, like its predecessors in the Pacific Rim franchise, is a show about living in the shadow of catastrophe, about humanity grappling with its place in the food chain, and about the way trauma can bring people together or force them apart. It is also a show about giant monsters and robots that are too big for a single pilot to use. The Black tightens its focus by building its story around the children who grow up in a world marred by monstrous attacks previously thought to be impossible. Definitely no real world connections we could make there, right?
When the original Pacific Rim lumbered onto film screens in 2013, it was a seismic moment for fans of the Super Robot genre, where teams of pilots use giant mechs called Jaegers to beat the heck out of giant monsters (or Kaiju, as they’re called) with reckless abandon. Guillermo Del Toro’s version of this familiar story was dripping in style and charm, even when its plot had some logical leaps.
The sequel, 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising, matched the original’s propulsive excitement, but seemingly went full Saturday-morning-cartoon with a thin plot and cut-out characters. It felt like a fairly weightless follow-up, lacking the gravity and staying power of the original. When Netflix announced its anime spinoff, Pacifc Rim: The Black, fans were cautiously optimistic — the anime style would give a story about giant mechs built to fight interstellar monsters plenty of added style — but reticent to get too hopeful.
The Black takes place some time after both movies, in an Australia that’s been battered by an invasion of kaiju. Two children, Taylor and Hayley, venture out into a scarred wasteland to find their parents, who left in a Jaeger to fight off the monsters five years ago and never came back. Their journey involves discovering a Jaeger of their own and run afoul of other people try to scrape together a life in this monster-ravage Australia, which has been cut off from the rest of the world due to its Kaiju infestation (called Operation Blackout, from which ‘The Black’ gets its name).
In a nice overcorrection to the goofy heroism of Uprising, Pacific Rim: The Black is not afraid to be bleak. Characters die early and often, sometimes in very gruesome ways. The harsh reality of living in a world so ravaged by disasters is always present in the characters’ minds, and there aren’t any sugar-sweet speeches about heroism to be found.
The show is at its best when it embraces more mature storytelling and shows the toll of living in such a dangerous world. There is a lot of exciting drama to mine from characters struggling with their own limited power in a land overrun by monsters, and the first episode’s knock-down drag-out violence shows us that Jaeger suits are impressive, but not a guarantee for victory.
The first season’s seven episodes also do an admirable job expanding upon established ideas in the Pacific Rim universe. The nature of the Drift, the process by which pilots link minds in order to share the load of piloting a mech suit, gets some intriguing wrinkles, with the act of sharing minds with someone having lots of previously-unseen implications and uses. The kaiju themselves take on some intriguing new forms in The Black, and while some of these new ideas may be harder to believe than others (especially when the show leans into more experimental super-science or tries to humanize the kaiju) it’s still clear that the writers on the show are not content with going the easy robot-vs-kaiju route, and instead want to make something new out of all of these shiny new toys.
Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like maybe they should have stayed on track a little more. Midway through the season, a detour into a human settlement and the power dynamics within undercut a lot of the show’s momentum, and secondary characters come across as two-dimensional.The middle of the season also keeps our core duo out of their jaeger cockpit for far too long, and while it’s noble to give us time to care about the characters inside the mech, that time isn’t used with any kind of intention or purpose.
While Hayley and Taylor have layers, everyone else feels much more shallow or familiar. You want a jaded soldier? Check. A jaded scientist? Check. A jaded mobster-like leader? Check. So many people have chips on their shoulder that you’d think a Pringles factory exploded.
Of course, a lot of clunky writing and characterization can be forgiven if everything on screen at least looks good. And from a design standpoint, The Black succeeds. Every character is well-designed, with unique fashion and silhouettes to give every person their own specific feel. The giant monsters look like Pacific Rim kaiju — vaguely human silhouettes, eerie teal bits glowing in an unearthly way. The jaegers also look dynamic and powerful, even better than they did on the big screen — until they start moving, anyway.
The show’s 3D-style animation, which is becoming increasingly the norm for Netflix’s choice of anime productions, is very pretty in still frames, but uncanny and choppy in movement. Characters body language feels stiff or over-exaggerated, and action scenes often feel weightless, with kaiju and jaegers bouncing around without any heft to their movements. There are still moments that stand out — a looming creature reaching out of shadows and dwarfing human characters even from a distance, tense showdowns from inside a Jaeger cockpit, and the metaphysical way the show visualizes The Drift are three examples of moments that manage to work. The show is by no means unpleasant to look at, but the flow of action is just choppier and more disjointed than it might have been in more traditional 2d animation.
All of these contradictory elements combine into an ultimately confused show. Characters get put on pause for no reason only to pick up out of nowhere a few episodes later. Fight scenes hum along pleasantly enough, but rarely really kick into gear and use all of their potential. Though the Pacific Rim franchise has recovered some ground and gravitas after Uprising, it’s still struggling to reconcile its own inherent camp, grittier aspects, and large-scale spectacle into a more coherent overall style.
Pacific Rim: The Black is a welcome return to the world of Jaegers and Kaiju, and does wonders regaining the simultaneous goofiness and gravity of the original film, but every new idea it brings to the story is mired by its clunky dialogue and roundabout pace. While its ‘two steps forward and one step back’ narrative isn’t as thrilling as fans might have hoped, there is still enough visual style and charm to make the seven episodes feel fun.
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While it won’t create any new fans of the super mech genre, Pacific Rim: The Black is a fun, occasionally brilliant, spin on a familiar story.
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