The single most memorable line of the Pacific Rim franchise came in the first movie when Idris Elba’s battle-armored mech marshal, Stacker Pentecost, proclaimed, “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!” In the first season of Pacific Rim: The Black, which hit Netflix on March 4, Stacker’s name is now relegated to Easter-egg status among a new generation of Jaeger pilots. They have big blue doll eyes, anime-style no-noses, and chins so sharp you could lance a Kaiju Skinmite with them.
Animated by Polygon Pictures — the Japanese studio known for its 3DCG Godzilla trilogy — The Black jumps forward to some indeterminate point in the monster-filled future. In doing so, it skips over what seems like a crucial bit of narrative: namely, said apocalypse. Apparently, it was rescheduled and happened mostly offscreen. What’s left in these seven easily-binged episodes is a post-apocalyptic Australia, straight out of Mad Max, with a dash of The Walking Dead thrown in. Hostile human survivor camps? Check. There’s even a guy named Shane and a truck convoy that kicks up dust as it rolls across the desert like a band of latecomers to the Fury Road war party.
In 2018, the cadets of Pacific Rim Uprising skewed the franchise in a more YA direction, with the dialogue rationalizing, “You make stronger connections when you are young. And that kind of connection makes you a better drift pilot.” Pacific Rim: The Black continues along the same trajectory, introducing the Travis siblings, Hayley and Taylor, as its new young protagonists. However, it then splits off in a more violent direction with a series of cutthroat character deaths. Let’s just say that Kaiju aren’t the only exploding heads in this series.
And yes, we will be delving into spoilers here.
The End of the World
During the intro to the first episode, the voices of newscasters inform us that breaches are erupting across Central Australia. The situation is so dire that the Pan Pacific Defense Corps initiates the Black, a full emergency evacuation of the area, which will turn it into no man’s land. Hayley’s and Taylor’s parents help fight off Kaiju in their Jaeger before leaving them and a transport full of other civilians to go get help.
Five years later, the kids are all grown up, still waiting around in a place called Shadow Basin, a rock fortress with gardens not unlike the one in Fury Road (not to belabor the comparisons to that movie, but it’s one clear part of the stew of recognizable ingredients at play in The Black). Hayley soon falls through the ground into the hidden base of Atlas Destroyer, a weaponless training Jaeger, which comes equipped with a sassy A.I. in its cockpit. Loa’s her name, and she’s something we haven’t seen in this mythos before, though MCU fans might be reminded of Iron Man’s gal F.R.I.D.A.Y.
Activating Atlas Destroyer attracts Copperhead, a Category IV Kaiju whose computer-generated artificiality is never in question as he gallops across the Outback. He kills everyone in Shadow Basin except Hayley and Taylor (though later he’ll bite off their Jaeger arm and gulp it down, leaving their machine severely handicapped).
The ensuing adventure sees the siblings wandering around abandoned cities, where they encounter canine Kaijus the size of Baby ‘Zillas, as well as a spiky Kaiju-Jaeger hybrid. While hunting for power cells, they also find a boy named Boy in a green bacta tank. He’s mute and not afraid to eat scorpions, kill snakes with his bare hands, or run off and stand on the edge of an open breach, staring down into the fiery abyss.
Pacific Rim established that there was a black market for Kaiju body parts. The Black builds on that concept by making Kaiju eggs a valuable commodity. That guy Shane, who sports a grey beard and the arch Aussie accent of a G.I. JOE villain, has “egg snatchers” working for him. He isn’t above trying to kill kids or using drifting as a means of interrogation. Reading people’s minds for memories via the neural bridge is another new twist that The Black adds to the lore.
“There’s far worse things than Kaiju in the Black,” Shane says, seemingly positioning this as one of those human-centered post-apocalyptic tales where the nominal monsters lurk in the background. It’s when Shane’s around, doing his Negan or Governor type thing, that the series feels a bit like The Walking Dead: Down Under, with Kaiju substituted for zombies.
It turns out Boy is the Kaiju Messiah, himself capable of hulking out into a monster and fighting other Kaiju. If you’re keeping score, that makes Hayley and Taylor the Mary and Joseph of this particular Chosen One chronicle. Even in human form, Boy can stop the punch of the aforementioned hybrid, Apex, who evolved from a drone Jaeger infected with Kaiju brain cells (as seen in Uprising). The little rascal is also a person of interest for the mysterious “Sisters,” though you’ll have to tune in next season to learn more about them because this season ends on a cliffhanger.
RSVP for the Rescheduled Apocalypse
Showrunners Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle handle most of the writing duties for Pacific Rim: The Black, so although the show incorporates anime visuals and there is a Japanese audio option (at least in Japan, where this writer resides), its original language is English. In its factory settings, then, it’s not necessarily the best fit for anyone who dislikes dubbing and prefers to watch their anime in Japanese with English subtitles. Listening to a foreign language has a humbling effect and can add a layer of exoticism to what you’re watching. When you strip that away, it desophisticates the dialogue and might well lay bare the prosaic, even cheesy nature of the storytelling.
About halfway through its first 28-minute episode, The Black starts manufacturing moments of melodrama between brother and sister, forcing them to go big with their emotions (survivor teen angst, we’ll call it), but since we’re not invested in them yet as characters, it’s too soon for these moments to feel earned. Having the Pacific Rim films fresh in mind might also leave the viewer with some nagging questions, chief among them being when this whole series is supposed to be set.
I had to go back and rewatch the opening of The Black because unlike the movies, which readily supplied updates on what year it was, the series doesn’t establish a firm place for itself in the Pacific Rim timeline. The only real indication that it takes place after the movies and not before them, during the Kaiju War of 2013 to 2025, comes from the fact that there are multiple breaches opening, some on dry land.
The voiceover says, “We’ve seen these before, friends,” and indeed we have, in Uprising, where the fully populated city of Sydney, Australia, served as the location of a big action scene. Earth’s defense forces, however, quickly shut down all the new breaches, cutting Kaijus in half as they crawled up through them into our world. That’s a fitting image, actually, because Uprising was only half-in as a creature feature. It almost reneged on the central premise of a mechs-versus-monsters movie. In the end, only three new monsters managed to cross over before assembling into one big Mega-Kaiju in the third act.
Then, of course, we got one of those eager-beaver mid-credits scenes setting up a sequel that won’t likely be happening. You may recall hearing Jon Boyega deliver the dramatic promise, “Next time, they won’t need to worry about coming for us. ‘Cause we’re going to come for them.” Cut to the Monday-morning trade magazine headline, “Pacific Rim: Uprising is a Jaeger Bomb at the Box Office.”
Prior to all of this, there was only one Breach. The original Pacific Rim made a big to-do about it: it was an interdimensional portal, with fish swimming by it at the bottom of the ocean. The film sold itself on the notion of Lovecraftian monsters that came from the deep, the very opposite direction of where a stargazer would look for alien life.
That’s because it was a Guillermo del Toro movie, the work of a visionary director with a deep affinity for monsters. Part of its singular appeal was that it brought human-piloted mechs into the live-action realm and had them brawling with monsters. del Toro even took the Japanese word for giant monster, kaiju, and made it the official in-universe name of his creatures. We were watching him play in the Evangelion sandbox.
Uprising felt more like it was pandering to the Transformers-loving market in China, which helped make the first Pacific Rim a success after its domestic gross underwhelmed. (This, plus the fact that Legendary Entertainment is a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate, and it’s no small wonder why they inserted a prominent Chinese-speaking character in that movie.) Stylistically, The Black returns the franchise to its Japanophile roots, but in the anime world, Pacific Rim suddenly feels like a small fish in a big pond. It loses some of what made it unique. We’ve seen this kind of story before.
While The Black does thread itself back in with the movies in some neat ways, it feels like it ignores, even perhaps undermines, their world-saving plots, simply by shrugging off the end of the world as something that happened later between stories. Remember how the heroes went to all the trouble of nuking the Breach in Pacific Rim? It turns out that didn’t matter much because breaches are now a dime a dozen. The viewer is left to suss out that, sometime after Uprising, they started opening up again in droves across the planet, allowing in enough Kaiju to overrun continents.
The series has fun world-building but as a shared-universe installment, it feels somewhat disconnected from its own continuity, perhaps because they want to keep it separate enough from the movies that they’re free to play without interfering in the franchise’s future (if there is one for it beyond this show). In Uprising, Boyega’s character was the son of Elba’s and there were several other returning characters that helped anchor it to the first movie. By contrast, it’s not until the fifth episode of The Black when we finally get something tying the mythology back to any of those characters again.
Even then, you’d need to pause the episode to determine the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fate of Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), who pulled a disappearing act in Uprising. Newsflash: he’s simply retired, whereas Herc Hansen, the Australian father who took over as PPDC Marshal after Stacker Pentacost, has met a more mysterious MIA fate.
The Black presents the idea of ghost piloting, drifting with the memory of another pilot. In Pacific Rim, Stacker and Raleigh were the only two Rangers who had ever managed to pilot a Jaeger solo. The Black shows us the third and fourth, Herc and Taylor, the former of whom did it in his last-known memory during his final mission.
There’s a scene in the sixth episode where the one-armed Atlas Destroyer stumbles on a Kaiju and Jaeger graveyard. It walks away with a new arm that doesn’t match the rest of its body. At times, it feels like The Black is Atlas Destroyer and the two Pacific Rim movies are that mismatched arm. Or maybe it’s the ghost pilot, drifting with a mishmash of memories from Hollywood blockbusters and serialized television (like we all are). Whatever the case, there’s probably an audience for this show, but the first movie had a one-of-a-kind pilot and his skillful maneuvering remains a tough act to follow.
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