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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pacific Rim: The Black is a bleaker take on the franchise, and all the better for it

Jaeger blocking a kaiju attack
Screenshot: Netflix
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Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that works almost too hard to lend thematic heft to what is an otherwise simple premise: giant robots fighting giant monsters. That’s a base-level, macro-lizard-brain pleasure, and Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham’s ode to anime, kaiju, mecha, and tokusatsu taps into that with all the bombast and chaos they could muster. Its drifting conceit—in which two co-pilots of the mechs (called Jaegers) mentally and emotionally link up to best control the massive machine—comes across too nebulous and under-explored to make its dramatic side hold water. Or perhaps it’s just a concept that doesn’t quite cohere for American audiences; the first movie underperformed in the U.S. but was a massive success overseas. Pacific Rim earned a more bombastic sequel that didn’t do as well. The latest iteration of the story is at once more expansive than the films and bleaker, though the anime influences still hold.

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Pacific Rim: The Black is a far cry from its source, ratings-wise. The overwrought fun of the first film was a PG-13 wrecking wonderland; The Black is a violent, dark, hard R. Within the first five minutes of the pilot, Jaeger pilots are directly killed by a kaiju monster; after 10, an entire city population has been wiped out. And it gets only more dour from there. Pacific Rim: The Black is a much more depressing, bleaker take on the franchise, and arguably is better for it. Here, Australia is the setting for these oversized battles, but unlike the films, the battle between humanity and monsters is effectively over. A last-ditch effort involves the parents of Taylor (Calum Worthy) and Hayley Travis (Gideon Adlon) co-piloting a Jaeger to fight off the last batch of beasties as they also guide a bus filled with passengers (adults and children) to safety. The Pan Pacific Defense Corps, the military group in charge of the Jaegers, then implements what appears to be some kind of final attack called “The Black” (the exact nature of what this is unclear, but the comment “We’re on our own” is telling). The Jaeger and the people on the bus are the only humans left. In desperation, the elder Travises mech-march off into the desolate unknown to find help, leaving Taylor, Hayley and the rest in a hidden oasis community. That was five years ago.

A vague, hollow hopelessness is palpable in Pacific Rim: The Black’s early going. It underpins everything, especially in the first two episodes: the wide, empty expanse of dead fields and arid canyons; the dilapidated buildings and cars across ruined urban landscapes; the sparse color palette and haunting score that background it all. That hopelessness is best expressed through the interactions between Hayley and Taylor, the two siblings who respond to the dire reality and developing failures in honest, painful ways. Hayley’s more gung-ho, determining spirit is sapped immediately as she blames herself for an early-going disaster within the community, an event that transforms Travis’ initial reluctance to break from the status quo into a a more active resolution to find a way forward. These feelings, constantly in flux over the course of these three episodes, are portrayed in ways that feel earnest and nuanced ways, even if they represent familiar anime tropes: elaborate dream sequences, flashy shouting matches, haze-filled flashbacks. They’re all done well, though, and never overtake the most effective choice: the small, personal, one-on-one moments where the two siblings just talk and connect over their shared trauma and need for one another.

Illustration for article titled Pacific Rim: The Black is a bleaker take on the franchise, and all the better for it
Image: Netflix Media Center (Other)

Even the Travis siblings’ discovery of the last Jaeger comes across as a fleeting victory. Named Atlas Destroyer, its AI is a blunt, honest computer called Loa (Erica Lindbeck) that adds a soft layer of humor to the situation, but the reality is that it’s a weaponless mech with little power and little tech to actually fight off encroaching kaiju. Hayley has no idea how to drift or pilot the thing, and Taylor only passed a written pilot exam. The Jaeger is less a cool, ass-kicking battle machine and more of a shell of protection, and a mobile setting for reflecting on the past, present, and future. Pacific Rim: The Black spends a lot of time pushing back on the films’ frenetic use of explosions, battles, colors, and destruction for something richer, darker, and emotionally draining. (There are cool, ground-shattering monster/mech fights, and they look great and dynamic, but don’t seem to be the emphasis of this show.) Lives are lost, society is gone. What to do from there is the central question.

Yet it’s at the end of the second episode, and most of the third, where that question starts to take a backseat for less interesting mysteries, threatening to become more of a generic, multi-layered sci-fi conspiracy thriller. A surprising discovery in a P.P.D.C. laboratory, for example, ends up distracting from the raw interplay between the Taylor and Hayley; the much bigger creature lurking about the ruined city is pretty recognizable but is clearly meant to set up more (uninteresting) questions. By the end of the third episode, the siblings are caught up in some kind of black market, paramilitary refugee camp that’s warring with another unseen one—by the time someone brings up the ominous “Sisters,” Pacific Rim: The Black becomes less an anime version of The Leftovers and more like a subplot from a Metal Gear Solid game. Even the mysterious “Black” from the first episode takes on a more epic, enigmatic tinge.

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Perhaps the revelations and discoveries in future episodes will make sense and open up brand new characters and storylines that will bring more to the exploration of what it means to fight for survival when all seems lost. That may be an old saw, both in the West (the endless Walking Deads) and in the East (Attack On Titan), but Pacific Rim: The Black’s emphasis on its brother and sister leads provides a specific point of view that’s deeply, earnestly engaging. There’s a danger that its forays into Lost-esque mysteries will derail from this, but hopefully it won’t stray too far from its strength, which is, surprisingly enough, hopelessness.

Contributor, The A.V. Club, with a clear preference for all things cartoons; check out his main blog at http://www.totalmediabridge.com.