The world first created by anime fanboy (also I hear he makes movies?) Guillermo del Toro is back as the 3DCG anime series Pacific Rim: The Black! The stage is set in Australia where a pair of orphaned children are on the hunt to find their parents and encounter an abandoned mech...
This series is streaming on Netflix
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, I sympathize with this here stiffly-animated CG dude. We're in for a rough week, because we gotta talk about Bad CG, mediocre monsters, and pointy chins. It's Netflix Time again.
Put on your skintight mech suits and prepare your best "dull surprise face" cuz we're drifting on in with Polygon Picture's Pacific Rim: The Black.
Oh boy. I hope you folks brought kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper, because I have beef with all things Pacific Rim. Long story short, I don't like Pacific Rim. Short story long, I grew up watching a lot of mecha, like Vandread or Patlabor or Gaogaigar or Evangelion. And I get that Pacific Rim represents a spotlight being forced onto a beloved nerd staple in the face of "normie" media, but the films frustrate my mecha-loving heart because outside of a bunch of loving references to classic mecha anime. The Russian pilots wore Scopedog helmets! The Precursors are literally the Dinosaur Empire from Getter Robo! Gypsy Danger functioning in an EMP field because "it's analog" is ripped straight from Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still! Pacific Rim just doesn't do anything interesting of its own. The Jaegers are boring. The kaiju are boring. The characters are boring. It just makes me want to watch the many things that its team of artists lovingly reference instead of another Pacific Rim.
I've actually watched mecha anime, so Pacific Rim can't just dangle mecha-shaped keys in my face and hold my attention. But for your average pop culture consumer who probably never got a chance to see Evangelion before Netflix rescued it from the heap, I guess it scratches the "Who cares? Robots!" itch.
So here we have Pacific Rim: The Black, which takes place in Australia. Kaiju, which are just giant monsters but we gotta have a foreign-sounding fancy word because I guess giant monsters only exist in Japan, are being sent from another world by beings called The Precursors via dimensional warps call Breaches. While most breaches are in the Pacific Ocean, Australia is quickly beset by terrestrial ones. Teams of Jaegers can't save Australia, so Operation Blackout is initiated: like with the Buster Call in One Piece, nukes rain down upon Australia and anyone left on the continent is left for dead.
Well call me a plebe, but I still have a big fondness for the 2013 movie where cult-favorite Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, decided to bring Robot-Punching-Monster-Action to "The Big Screen". In fact, I re-watched it before writing this and I still had a pretty fun time. However, I'd also say that the number of other mech series I've seen can still be counted using only my fingers and toes.
However, while I'm one of the people who waited years for any kind of PacRim morsels to surface from the deep ocean of media, most of my goodwill evaporated with word about it's more "corporate" sequel, and I basically assumed this Netflix Original Spin-off series to be the same.
Our heroes are Taylor and Hayley, a pair of kids who are left at a safe glade in the middle of nowhere after The Blackout happens. Their parents take the last Jaeger in Australia to get to Sydney in the hopes of finding help. But five years later, no help comes. But Hayley finds a training Jaeger, Atlas Destroyer.
Pretty much after their parents leave it's immensely clear that PacRim: The Black isn't really a mech story involved in war and fanfare but rather it's more of a little pocket of the post-apocalypse that happens to have a mech and some monsters in it.
The two siblings and a school bus full of kids manage to build their own little settlement out in the wild but a life waiting to die is stagnant so of course they have a fight until one of them runs off and stumbles into the remains of the old base.
Early on, we even see a few people leaving the encampment—we never do see what happens to them, come to think of it...
Also, this is a Polygon Pictures show, so all of these models are in extremely jerky frame-skipping animations and look super awkward while they're moving around. So, uh. Be ready for that.
Well none of that really matters anyways because a Kaiju comes and flattens the whole village into carting like if it was Monster Hunter without The Hunter around.
I wanna give this first episode credit; Copperhead laying waste to the encampment and the siblings seeing the mangled bodies of their long-time friends is a serious gut-punch. As far as calls to adventure go, this is a good one. The remnants of it stick with Hayley for a good bit.
I consider it kinda cheap because we never spent any time learning to care about anyone that died. At most we see the girl Taylor likes or Hayley's friend for about two seconds. I feel the same way about their parents. I can't be sad about the stuff you're showing me when I don't have any specifics to contextualize what was lost!
and man, those polypic faces really aren't doing it any justice.
However janky these look in screenshots, allow me to remind you, dear reader: it's even jankier in motion.
Yeah, for a show mostly about action set pieces the action leaves a little to be desired. Polygon's works never feel as incompetent as something like EX-ARM, but it's not exactly riveting either. There's some neat choreography but something about these Netflix series just feel like empty spectacle with not much emotion attached to them.
At any rate, the fight against Copperhead leaves Atlas without power, so the siblings try to hunt some batteries down. Their adventures introduces them to Boy, the most anime thing Pacific Rim has actually managed to do. He's a white-haired mute child!
And he's hungry! And would probably kill a cat if it meant eating it. And super-powered? Yeah, just pile on the tropes.
Pacific Rim takes a moment from ripping off mecha anime to toss in a Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid reference. Progress?
Unfortunately, their plan to get the the right batteries to go into their new toy doesn't work out. With their ride still grounded they have to walk to seek help. They spot and follow another group stealing some monster eggs, and this is about the part of the show where I could've swore I was just watching that new CGI Ghost in the Shell series because Mei's purple hair and outfit reminds me a lot of a certain Major Kusanagi.
Also man, this thing is ugly, and not in the way that I like my monsters. That shader does not compliment it.
It's basically just a writhing mess that exists to get shot at. Again, that's why it's kinda generous to still call this a mech show because with the Jaegar down, the characters basically have to fight like it's The Walking Dead.
Considering how Netflix Anime™️ works, that's probably a feature and not a bug. "Folks still like The Walking Dead, right?"
I wanna take a moment to talk about Mei, because I think someone who worked on this show loved her a lot. She might be an even more blatant Motoko Kusanagi rip-off than Mako in the first PR, but she's at least way more compelling and actually has a story. I think someone on the production crew would be very happy if someone were to draw a lot of AU art of her dancing at parties and working at a café and otherwise having a happy, non-canonical life.
Mei isn't a bad character in concept but I also can't really warm up to her. She's introduced as the hardened badass member of the group of hardened badasses, run by this ojii-san named Shane. He's trying his best to beat all the other hardened badass groups left out to fend for themselves in no-man's land and show them who's boss.
I don't think that's her fault, it's just that Shane isn't an interesting enough villain to me to make me feel sympathetic.
The one thing I can give Shane is that he finally puts some of Pacific Rim's tech to interesting use. See, the giant robots in PR work off of Evangelion's synchronization system by way of G-Gundam's Tracer System: the pilot controls the whole mech with their body. But a giant robot is "too much strain" for one person's nervous system. So two pilots need to sync up their brains in a "neural handshake" process called "Drifting" to pilot a Jaeger.
Shane, as it turns out, has his own Drift system, which he uses to probe people's brains—or better yet, manipulate people's memories. It's later revealed that this is how he put Mei under his thumb, and it's also how he finds out about Atlas Destroyer from Taylor.
Yeah, what sets PacRim apart as a story for me is the dual-pilot system. Having someone go through all your emotional baggage like airport security is pretty rife for storytelling. We first see it with Hayley struggling with survivor's guilt and Shane has basically used the drift system as his very own interrogation technique. These dream-like sequences are one of the highlights of the show.
It's easily the highlight: Shane literally pokes his head around a bunch of the earlier scenes in the show like an Australian G Man.
We also see how he instilled Mei into becoming the gun-toting killer that she is. Her story is tragic because she believes she was abandoned and he took her in, even though he actually stole her and buried her memory using the system and stored data to falsify his own. Though with only 7 episodes, all of this is revealed rather quickly.
I also wanna give a quick shout-out to this guy, Joel. He's a Jaeger engineer who works for Shane and is tasked with repairing Atlas. In searching for a compatible Drift partner among his goons, Shane fries his brain; Joel loses all of his memories associated with fixing Jaegers, but walks away with a completely different set of skills.
This turns out to be relevant because stealing Atlas back from Shane requires that Taylor pilot Atlas alone—and the only way to do that is for Taylor to drift with the "ghost" of a pilot who did it. There's a cute bit where three characters from the first Pacific Rim are namedropped, but the resulting mind meld lets Taylor pull the trick off—albeit, his own brain gets scrambled so now he has another man's extremely vivid memories.
He's now a teen boy living with an old dudes PTSD! Which is good because he was a pretty empty character otherwise.
I also actually really liked Joel because he's one of the only dudes with a rapport, aside from my other favorite character, the goddamn sassy blue-ball of an AI, Loa.
Erica Lindbeck, ladies and gentlemen! She does such amazing work.
She might be the best actor in the whole show tbh, not that the other performances are bad. But it takes a lot of skill to make a computer verbally eye-roll at you.
She's also probably the reason the training Jaegar is still around in the first place, y'know after they tried to blow her up. Though, that doesn't change the fact that it doesn't have any weapons, because it's a teaching tool.
Add-on attachments not included!
Unfortunately, there isn't much else to talk about. Like Nicky said, there are only seven episodes to Pacific Rim: The Black. It doesn't feel like a whole season. There are some tense moments with Apex, a remnant of a Kaiju-Jaeger hybrid from Pacific Rim: Uprising that imprints upon Boy and otherwise... doesn't do much. There's some drama with Mei where she tries to suss out the truth of her origins. And there's a big climactic showdown against Copperhead! But that's about it.
The kids do find their parents' Jaeger, but there's still no sign of their parents so the search goes on.
Oh, and it's revealed Boy is actually a kaiju that can disguise himself as a human.
Again, I kinda wanna take a moment to shake Pacific Rim by the shoulders and scream at it, "Why are your Kaiju so boring?!" Guillermo del Toro is famous for his monster designs and channeled a lot of energy from classic robot anime, but in a medium that gave us the bizarro Dinosaur Empire or the mind-bending Angels, why are all of PR's kaiju just... lizards?
Like, Boy's true form is halfway creative, but if you're gonna have a shifting Kaiju, I dunno, add a little Ultraman flair. Give him wacky red-and-silver colors, or—here's an idea! Give him totally messed-up anatomy, like maybe his head is in his chest like Ultraman's Jamila.
I like weird alien-lizards so again I'm a pleb but the Polygon Picture's treatment doesn't do them justice, and like the rest, it feels a little barebones. I can see it starting to go into some potentially interesting places with its premise and concepts but other than the concept of drifting and memories, I don't find many of them unique. Like, I really can't name one thing about the siblings or most of the characters outside of the plot.
I mean, Raleigh and Mako themselves weren't particularly great either in PR1—and John Boyega won out in PR2 by virtue of being the loveable John Boyega.
Hayley showed a little promise when she skipped through all the tutorial lessons on her online robot driving test, a bit that was pretty funny. There's occasionally one or two good quips to keep it from feeling too sluggish, but I consider most of this to be pretty generic.
Also, simplicity in a movie is a thing that I think works better because you have less time to tell your story, but a series where you're asking for a much larger time investment really needs to plant its hooks in early if it wants to keep the audience gripped.
And this show sinks its big meaty claws in a little late for me.
I hate to be a downer in This Week In Anime, especially since I know a lot of people really like Pacific Rim. But all I can do is offer a shrug at Pacific Rim: The Black. Even this year alone, Back Arrow showed how you can take personalized mechs and make it breezy, energetic and fun while still having a tense politically-charged storyline and memorable characters. And next month, Trigger's gonna drop a sequel series to its beloved, emotional SSSS.Gridman in the form of SSSS.Dynazenon. So from where I'm standing, all PR:TB has going for it is jingling giant-robot-shaped keys in my face. I'd hate to be so down on this when someone put their very beloved OC Mei into the show, but even she just feels like someone's Oni OC.
I deeply, painfully wished I liked anything with the words "Pacific Rim" on it more than I do. But Pacific Rim: The Black just can't manage it.
I feel like it has less to do with Pacific Rim as a concept and more to just doing the same Netflix CGI anime beats as any other Netflix CGI show. The direction isn't stand out enough, the characters aren't allowed to emote because of the constraints of the animation, and any pathos that's there gets lost in favor of moving the plot forward. There's never a true victory out in the Blackout Zone, and unlike something like Japan Sinks: 2020, it doesn't really settle long enough for us to feel like it's saying anything about that.
Also, all of this just makes me upset that I'm not getting the CGI monster show I actually want to watch next season: Godzilla Singular Point!! Curse you Netflix Jail!!!
I think Mei might have some sage wisdom for us. Mei, you got anything?