For fans of Guillermo Del Toro, the Pacific Rim franchise is something of an enigma. The homage to Kaiju and mecha epics became a fan-favorite despite a disappointing box-office return. The sequel, 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising, was met with less favorable reviews but restoked interest in the IP’s franchise potential. With several excellent video games and films finding the anime treatment in recent years, including Castlevania, Netflix embarked on a similar strategy with Pacific Rim: The Black. Set in the Australian Outback, Pacific Rim: The Black reads as a throwback to Zoids with cell-shaded CGI. The resulting series is a promising continuation of the franchise and another important step in acknowledging its roots.
Pacific Rim: The Black follows young pilots Taylor (Calum Worthy) and Hayley (Gideon Adlon). Their parents were Jaeger pilots, driving the giant mech suit to fight world-ending Kaiju. After saving their children from monsters, the parents go missing while searching for help. Five years later, Hayley and Taylor run a small colony of teens, secluded in a paradise from the world around them. However, when Hayley stumbles upon a training Jaeger, the brother and sister find themselves the target of both Kaiju and power-hungry despots.
While not as outwardly jokey as Del Toro’s film, the serious tone matches the characters put on screen. They are pained by loss and death. It’s become a defining characteristic of their life, and they take the small victories in stride. While the series would certainly benefit from characters as weird and quirky as Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, the assembled crew matches traditional anime tropes. Instead, we get one very snarky AI — Loa (Erica Lindbeck) and an addict technician (Vincent Piazza) to provide the most comic relief in the first season. Each character adds a wrinkle to the plot, but neither provides enough laughs to overshadow the series tone of the rest of the series.
The action showcased in the series will be enjoyable to fans of mech fighters. The Jaegers are as brilliant in their design as ever. The idea of the drift, where two characters enter each other’s minds to control the mech, develops earned emotional beats throughout the series. This concept evolves Taylor and Hayley into characters living through PTSD instead of blank heroes. This becomes especially true when the group meets Mei (Victoria Grace). Mei fits into traditional Western tropes of the warrior with a heart of gold, but as a young woman and vicious warrior, she adds textures to the trope we’ve never seen before. Despite her rough exterior, the Drift cannot hide the pain that exists within. The dynamics explored with these open vulnerabilities provide us plenty of background and empathetic moments for our heroes.
The design of the Kaiju provides many highlight-worthy moments as well. Their variety is impressive. Smaller, horse-sized creatures with the athleticism of panthers make for worthy adversaries. Even the stories-tall monsters that destroy the world are unique in their powers and design. Drawing from decades of Kaiju film and manga, The Black shows love for its inspirations with classic Kaiju’s creative designs while carving its own path.
Either to Pacific Rim: The Black‘s credit or detriment, it focuses a lot on adding lore to the franchise. New creatures and characters add interesting elements to the series (that also contain massive spoilers). It’s wise for the series to expand its reach and try some experimental aspects. Ultimately, it needs to bring more to the table than just big robots fight big monsters to sustain itself as an IP. For some, the new and expanding lore will fill out the world, but others will find it boring. Wherever you sit on the “world-building vs. action” fence, the series does not supply enough of either to keep the extremes on each side happy with the show.
For Pacific Rim, the thought of moving to a Netflix anime is a stepping stone toward rebuilding the brand. With time, enough character development and world-building should help draw fans to the franchise, and The Black delivers some enjoyable sequences to boot. With a renewed focus on the mental aspect of the series, the anime takes advantage of its strongest elements. Yet there’s room for the show to grow, making Pacific Rim: The Black a work in progress. With plenty of mystery and exciting heroes established, The Black deserves more than a passing glance.