2013’s Pacific Rim wasn’t a movie that I loved as a whole, but its big screen, live-action depiction of giant robots called Jaegers battling invading Kaiju certainly wowed me. Following the ill-received Pacific Rim: Uprising live action movie in 2018 (which I skipped), the Pacific Rim franchise continues with the Polygon-animated series Pacific Rim: The Black, a 3DCG anime that operates on a smaller scale and in a different sort of setting. It’s interesting to see an anime-inspired live-action movie inspire an anime sequel. However, despite hungrily devouring all seven episodes and looking forward to the inevitable continuation, I’m left with annoyance after finishing this first season.
Although the Pacific Rim live-action films ended with victory, Pacific Rim: The Black begins with defeat. Australia is overrun by Kaiju, and the Pan Pacific Defense Corps decides to abandon the continent. Not everyone manages to evacuate, and, despite the efforts of their Jaeger-piloting parents to seek help, sibling protagonists Taylor (initially grouchy and unlikeable) and Hayley Travis (delightfully adventurous and plucky, although she’s reigned in a bit early on) find themselves living the next five years of their lives in a hidden oasis with a small community of survivors. Eventually, an incident forces them to head out into post-apocalyptic Australia, now called The Black, with an unarmed training Jaeger called the Atlas Destroyer.
Aside from occasional moments with stiff or awkward animations (and one underwhelming-looking explosion), Pacific Rim: The Black looks good both in motion and still. The Kaiju might seem a little less organic than their live-action counterparts, but it’s not a significant issue, and the weighty Jaegers steal every scene they’re in just by existing. While the plot means that there isn’t much Jaeger variety in the present day, the Atlas Destroyer’s attractive combination of color and design and the occasional physical changes it experiences overcome that issue. I just wish that one of the Kaiju designs wasn’t reused multiple times.
Big robots, small-scale story
Pacific Rim: The Black focuses on the siblings’ attempts to find their parents and escape Australia, instead of embarking on an epic quest to save the world. Although the Atlas Destroyer gets into a few battles, notably with a persistent Kaiju called Copperhead, a lot of focus is placed on events that take place outside the cockpit. My younger self would’ve hated that fact and yearned for the type of action and Jaeger/Kaiju variety frontloaded in the opening scenes. But as an adult, Taylor and Hayley’s journey never felt dull. Issues like finding a new battery for the Atlas Destroyer and an encounter with the Kaiju organ-trafficking organization, Bogan, led by the ruthless and memorable Shane, provided compelling challenges and driving forces for the characters. The show is largely serious, but Loa, the Atlas Destroyer’s training AI, provides effective humor with her unintentionally sarcastic remarks.
It helps that, at only seven episodes, the story moves along at a quick pace and doesn’t feel boring at all. At the same time, however, I wish the show could’ve had a few more episodes to work with. The first half of the second episode has Taylor trying to be a supportive pillar for Hayley, giving off the impression that their sibling bond — and how it carries them through their arduous journey — would form the core of the story. But with the show adding a mysterious boy (who the siblings call “Boy”), Bogan, and a new major character called Mei (a cool and capable fighter haunted by her past) by the third episode, the story’s direction quickly gets diverted. While I wouldn’t say that the sibling relationship is forgotten, I can’t help but think that having more episodes would’ve provided a better balance between the family aspect and the other plot elements.
It doesn’t help that “Boy” spends much of the show wandering off like an annoying NPC and killing insects instead of contributing to the siblings’ family dynamic. His presence, in general, is one of my least favorite parts of the show: the mystery surrounding “Boy” is not all that interesting, he comes off as apathetic most of the time before suddenly acting more human in the last two episodes, and his presence causes Hayley to constantly look after him instead of engaging in more interesting activities. There are various times where Mei takes over as the main heroine instead, and as much as I like Mei, it pained me to see the younger Travis sibling acting like a supporting character for a good chunk of the time. Hayley isn’t totally wasted, and she does get to step back into the spotlight, but there were more than a couple of times where I worried that she would be sidelined for good.
Mei herself is slightly wasted but on the personal side of things instead of the action side of the show. She has two important relationships, one with Shane and another with a former PPDC scientist called Joel. Mei’s history with the latter is a little vague, but it’s clear that they’re close, and I wanted to see the show delve into their friendship. At one point, it seems like the show would deliver on that and position them as an alternate main pair to Taylor and Hayley, but the script quickly abandons the possibility. As for Shane, it’s clear that he has great trust in Mei and that he had molded Mei since a young age to be a loyal soldier, but the extent of their relationship is only revealed — and told rather than shown — as a last-minute setup for an important revelation which suffers from the lack of build-up. Mei’s haunted nature and struggle with Shane’s control still make her more than a mere action figure, but, as with the sibling relationship, it felt like there could’ve been more with additional episodes.
Other issues I had with the script include the characters’ occasionally short-sighted or questionable actions (ironically, the least idiotic of these is the one with the worst consequences), the moments where Drift Compatibility between pilots isn’t an issue (except for where the plot requires it to be), and how there doesn’t actually seem to be that many Kaiju in Australia, despite the continent supposedly being overrun. Luckily, the pace and the sufficiently compelling story make it easy to overlook these writing issues.
Pacific Rim: The Black works well as a standalone experience overall, but there are some namedrops and a cameo that will get the attention of fans of the first film, while the events of the second film are referenced and have an impact on the siblings’ journey. I enjoyed the references to the first movie, but I felt largely ambivalent towards the anime’s expansion of the Pacific Rim lore. One of the abilities displayed (it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal, although it’s not much of a surprise either) made me think of a character in SSSS.Gridman, while the design of a biomechanical creature that’s related to Uprising’s events reminded me visually of Evangelion. Simply put, both seemed like they would be more at home in other anime than in the Pacific Rim universe, for conceptual and visual reasons respectively. On the other hand, the newly introduced Ghost Piloting concept makes for a more natural fit that also has interesting side effects that could result in a bit of future drama, although it’s better not to think too hard about its mechanics. There are also smaller, dog-like Kaiju now, which are fine but not the most exciting of additions.
The first season largely resolves a major plot thread while introducing a new cult-related one at the end (it’s worth noting that the final episode feels less like a season finale and more like the middle point of a show). While I can’t say that I’m hugely excited about that new thread, I won’t say no to seeing the siblings, Atlas Destroyer, and Mei on screen again. Despite all my complaints, Pacific Rim: The Black‘s plot conflicts and 3DCG anime Jaegers were enough to keep me hooked until the end. All I need from the next season is to replicate that with less annoying character actions and plot decisions.