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Credit: Netflix

Pacific Rim: The Black is indeed a Pacific Rim anime, for better or worse

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Mar 9, 2021, 5:29 PM EST (Updated)

Before reading any further, please understand that Pacific Rim is a perfect movie. I simply will not hear any contrarian blasphemy suggesting otherwise. Guillermo del Toro takes a frankly dumb premise (giant robots punching giant monsters) and executes it with so much care and passion that it becomes transcendent cinema. It builds on established genre tropes and transforms them into something new and distinct. It is, in part, a live-action anime, and yet it’s not really surprising that the new Pacific Rim anime on Netflix falls far short of the 2013 movie’s perfection. Pacific Rim: The Black isn’t a bad Pacific Rim anime. It just very much is indeed an anime.

The Black follows Taylor and Hayley Travis — teen siblings whose names are “Taylor” and “Hayley” instead of something absurd and cool like “Stacker Pentecost” — as they try to escape a Land Down Under that’s been overrun by kaiju. The pair’s parents were Jaeger pilots who left them and a small band of survivors behind in the Australian Outback as they attempted to get help after the continent fell to the invading monsters. When they haven’t returned after five years, Taylor and Hayley attempt to find help themselves with the assistance of an old training Jaeger they stumble across. Together, the pair encounter kaiju of all sorts and sizes, a mysterious boy who seems to have some sort of link to the beasts, and other humans who are attempting to survive and make good in kaiju-run Australia — "The Black," as it’s known. The Black is borderline post-apocalyptic, which is a slight bummer considering the first movie’s most iconic line.  

It’s not a bad premise, and The Black is confident in how it builds on the Pacific Rim world, both in terms of filling in gaps (we spend time with people who aren’t part of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps and play with the logistics of needing to find Drift partners on the fly) and when it comes to adding new lore (the show introduces “small” kaiju, Jaeger-kaiju hybrids, and a big twist involving that mysterious boy). Taylor and Hayley have just enough going for them to make them more than stock anime protagonists, and there are some neat action beats. It’s hard to be too harsh on anything that has a scene where a giant robot catches a deflected missile and then uses it to punch a giant monster right in its toothy maw.

Yet, something about The Black feels cheap compared to Pacific Rim. It’s lighter fare — literally. One of the hardest things to get right in animation is a sense of weight because anything that’s animated, whether by hand or by a computer, literally weighs nothing. There’s no heft, no mass. When an animated robot steps on an animated street, we don’t innately register that the robot weighs hundreds of tons and that the pavement should be yielding to the immense pressure of a Jaeger's foot. The first movie succeeded at making these towering metal machines and gargantuan glowing monsters feel like they actually were big and heavy; they moved slowly because it takes time for something that big to move through space. The sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising, wasn’t as diligent in making its kaiju and Jaegers truly feel as big as they were meant to be, instead opting to speed things up for flashier action sequences. It’s one of the many reasons why Uprising was a letdown.   

The Black is fully animated, and its animation style does it no favors in making the robots and monsters — let alone the world — seem like they matter. The 3D, computer-generated anime aesthetic that’s increasingly popular gives everything the same glossy sheen, and while The Black isn’t as challenging to look at as the initial trailers might’ve led one to believe, it’s certainly not helping, either. The battles between the kaiju and Jaegers are difficult to parse, as all the glowing details have the same level of visual importance as everything else on the screen. One can’t help but wonder how much better The Black might look if it were in the style of, say, Castlevania, another Netflix anime.

Credit: Netflix

To a certain extent, it’s almost unfair to knock The Black for being an anime Pacific Rim, given how obviously the movie was inspired by giant robot anime and manga like Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Pacific Rim, though, became more than the sum of its parts — and I say that with all the respect in the world for animation as a medium and for iconic works like Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion. What Pacific Rim did, in large part because it was a live-action movie shepherded by del Toro — perhaps the most wholly earnest lover of genre working today — is make those tropes feel real. Not necessarily realistic, but fully realized. Del Toro drew upon kaiju films and giant robot anime to create something singular.

The Black, meanwhile, doesn’t have the advantage of a change in medium (or del Toro’s guidance) to distinguish itself. The anime tropes in this anime stand out — especially when the show adds more obvious, more stereotypical anime hallmarks that weren’t in the movie. (Teenage protagonists! A child who's mute and more than they appear!) It’s deconstructing Pacific Rim and drawing attention to the parts rather than the whole. 

As an anime, The Black is fun, especially since it’s a fairly breezy seven episodes. It’s just another anime though, one that’s decent but hardly reinventing the genre the way Pacific Rim did. If Pacific Rim took its anime and other influences into The Drift and emerged with the ability to pilot a Jaeger, The Black is just one person hoping their weak neural handshake will be enough. And, sure, it gets the Jaeger moving — we just know what’s missing.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.