Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 hit Pacific Rim was a case of two entertaining things that went well together—namely, enormous Godzilla-style monsters and equally gargantuan robot animé mechas. It was a hybrid concept predicated on scale, with titanic armored warriors dubbed Jaegers doing thunderous weaponized and hand-to-hand combat with creatures known as Kaiju who’d appeared on Earth through interdimensional Pacific Ocean portals. Operated by two pilots (via a mind-meld process called “The Drift”), the Jaegers were striking humanoid machines inspired by those found in Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Macross (not to mention Robotech and Voltron), while their Kaiju adversaries resembled distant cousins of Japan’s most famous radioactive beast, as well as his various land-sea-air adversaries. In every respect, Pacific Rim was all about size.
It’s thus somewhat surprising to find that, following a deflating theatrical sequel (2018’s insubstantial John Boyega-headlined Pacific Rim: Uprising), the franchise has now moved to the small screen, courtesy of Pacific Rim: The Black, a seven-episode animated affair premiering on Netflix on March 4. The loss of sheer enormity, however, is made up for by the fact that Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle’s show returns Pacific Rim to its animé roots, replete with stellar animation from Polygon Pictures that melds throwback style with computer-assisted 3-D effects. Pacific Rim: The Black feels like both a novel and natural evolution of the series, even if it is missing some of the monumental crunch and snarl of Del Toro’s live-action (if massively CGI-enhanced) original.
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News soundbites playing over the premiere’s credit sequence succinctly set the context for Pacific Rim: The Black. With Kaijus now running rampant across the region, Australia has found itself incapable of fending off the invaders, its legion of Jaegers no match for their alien opponents. Consequently, the government has ordered that the continent be evacuated—a surrender that plays out in real time during the episode’s initial action, which finds one Jaeger falling victim to a Kaiju, and another one, piloted by husband and wife Ford (Jason Spisak) and Brina (Alexandra MacDonald), defeating a collection of tentacled monsters, the last of which is felled when the heroes physically jam a missile down its throat. In winning this skirmish, Ford and Brina save a truck filled with evacuees, including their young children Taylor (Cole Keriazakos) and Hayley (Camryn Jones). Knowing that Australia is lost, and that they can’t make it to Sydney, Ford and Brina leave their kids and everyone else in the hidden desert enclave Shadow Basin, promising to return with help.
Five years later, that help hasn’t materialized, nor have Ford and Brina, and the now-grown Taylor (Calum Worthy) and Hayley (Gideon Adlon) run the commune themselves. Hayley wants to look for their parents, but gruff Taylor—who as an adolescent trained to be a Jaeger pilot—is convinced that they’re dead and thinks it’s best to lay low. Maintaining the status quo, however, becomes impossible when Hayley falls through a hole in the ground and discovers Shadow Basin’s abandoned Pan-Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) facility and, more importantly, an abandoned Jaeger named Atlas Destroyer. Better still, Atlas Destroyer is functional (if lacking any weapons, since it’s a training model), and boasts an AI named Loa (Erica Lindbeck), which means Taylor and Hayley can finally do something about their predicament. Or, at least, so they think, since as soon as Atlas Destroyer goes online, a Kaiju arrives. Though they survive this encounter, it’s not without its cost, putting Taylor and Hayley in a desperate situation.
Shortly thereafter, Taylor and Hayley set out across “The Black” (i.e. the abandoned, decimated stretch of Australia). As one might expect from such a serialized affair, their quest is immediately complicated by a variety of factors, beginning with Atlas Destroyer collapsing on its face due to a lack of power. The siblings’ search for a new power cell puts them into perilous contact with a pair of rabid four-legged fiends that resemble a cross between a Doberman and a velociraptor, and leads to the discovery of a mysterious mute boy whom Hayley finds in a vat of green liquid in a PPDC recruitment center. They also stumble upon a crew of heavily-armed strangers collecting the eggs of an aquatic Kaiju (think a crocodile mixed with a Komodo dragon). They’re members of a nomadic community run by the mysterious Shane (Andrew McPhee), who’s trading those eggs for valuable goods with another shadowy wheeler-dealer.
This is all pretty standard-issue adventure material, as is Taylor’s lingering anger issues and Hayley’s guilt over their current circumstances, and Pacific Rim: The Black handles its rock-‘em-sock-’em carnage and anguished drama with energetic efficiency. With each of its installments running under 30 minutes, the show moves at a suitably swift speed, delivering contextual details and character development through the propulsive action at hand. Its American voice actors ably lend these characters their personality, aided by animation cast in a traditional animé mold, its protagonists blessed with big glowing eyes, pointy chins and hairstyles, and lithe bodies, and its Jaegers and Kaiju designed to recall their spiritual ancestors. Moreover, it visualizes the Drift succinctly and evocatively, with Taylor and Hayley floating through a liquid-y void in which their memories float around them in tiny bubbles—if, that is, they don’t become completely lost in warped remembrances of their past.
What’s missing from Pacific Rim: The Black is the awe-inspiring larger-than-life hyperrealism of Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 film, which was energized by the fact that it was bringing such typically two-dimensional sights to “real life.” Rendering Jaegers and Kaiju via animation is, given their TV origins, fitting, and yet it’s also a bit less exciting. Without the chest-rattling boom of every seismic Jaeger footstep, or deafening din of a Kaiju shriek, the series packs less of a wallop. That said, the upside to this endeavor is over-the-top action that even Del Toro’s CGI magicians couldn’t quite pull off—a trade-off that makes Johnson and Kyle’s series maybe not a grand success, but certainly a worthwhile addition to the franchise.
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