Pacific Rim: The Black poster

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Robots — “Pacific Rim: The Black”

The second article I ever wrote on this site was called “Giant Monsters Gently Pluck My Heartstrings”. It was about Guillermo Del Toro’s most misunderstood film: “Pacific Rim”. It’s just giant robots and monsters beating each other up, right? Pretty colors, fun explosions, Idris Elba monologues. It’s like a “Transformers” movie where you can actually see what’s happening and leave without a headache. That doesn’t mean it has any real depth, yeah?

“Pacific Rim” as a franchise isn’t about the robots or the monsters, though. They’re incidental – a very fun incidental – but they’re a means to an end. Every Guillermo Del Toro monster is a metaphor for something far more consequential, and every means to fight it or understand it speaks to us about human nature. Yet every time, without fail – the one film we forget this about is “Pacific Rim”.

At its very best moments, “Pacific Rim” is about the Drift: the process where two people share memories in order to pilot the giant robots known as jaegers. “Pacific Rim” is about one thing before all others: two people coping with trauma and loss who find themselves in a sudden relationship to each other where neither can hide. To function, to do all that battling, to rise up and help others, they need to find a way to understand and communicate their trauma to each other. And let me tell you, these days this franchise and that idea feel fresher than they did when the film came out in 2013.

In the original movie, this loss is even explored across cultures – how people from different cultures and with different expectations respond to that loss. An approach to coping might be seen as brave in one culture, but is viewed as unhealthy in another. When someone crosses a boundary to help someone who doesn’t want that help, it can be seen as standing up for someone in one culture, and as a gross violation of trust in another. That is the entire push-and-pull dynamic shaped between Rinko Kikuchi’s, Idris Elba’s, and Charlie Hunnam’s characters in that film.

When you get it down to Kikucho and Hunnam, this is what I wrote “Pacific Rim” was about in August 2013: “two people abandoned suddenly and violently, for reasons they can’t understand, who – because they chance to meet – finally surpass the paralyzing effect that loss has on their lives.”

I am awed by how wildly “Pacific Rim” is overlooked. The 2018 sequel “Pacific Rim: Uprising” didn’t help matters. It killed off a fan favorite for no reason, its plot was wild, and it made the mistake of thinking the franchise is about robots fighting monsters – not about the traumatized people fixing and breaking themselves all over again just to get to that fight in the first place. I still enjoy it for what it is, but “Pacific Rim” needed its heart back again.

Enter “Pacific Rim: The Black”. And good god, it understands. The Japanese-American animation has a seven-episode first season on Netflix, with a second already ordered. Using an anime style means it can make those jaeger vs. kaiju battles look beautiful, but understanding “Pacific Rim” means they know that not many of them are needed. This show is about character.

The war against the invading giant monsters known as kaiju is now lost. Australia has been abandoned. Hayley and Taylor are saved by their parents – pilots of a jaeger. They’re left to hide with survivors in a desert oasis near a now-buried jaeger base. Their parents promise they’ll come back with rescuers in a few weeks time. Five years pass.

The oasis community is doing well for themselves, until one day Hayley finds a way into that old base and discovers a dilapidated, weaponless jaeger. I won’t ruin what happens, but one of the throughlines of “Pacific Rim: The Black” is that joy is often paired with loss. The show does not give anyone an easy time. Don’t make assumptions about the sci-fi anime wrapping – it is easily the most mature entry in the franchise, and it doesn’t shy away from violence.

I ache for shows that put their characters into impossible corners, with no easy outs, where they have to make decisions where there’s no right answer. I yearn for shows that engage trauma to tackle that it can’t be waved away, that it doesn’t only crop up when doing so keys an interesting plot – that trauma is interruptive, that it is what takes your plot and shatters it so now your characters have to find their way around or through it. That is dealing with trauma as a responsible storyteller, and if there’s a franchise that needs that same approach, it is “Pacific Rim”. They get it beyond right.

The show incorporates some familiar anime tropes. To give a fairly spoiler-free example…a character they meet mid-series, Mei, is the prototypical hard-boiled survivor trained to be a killer since she was a girl. I wouldn’t call my knowledge of anime exceptionally deep, but I’ve seen the broad character type before. I’ve rarely seen it done this well, though. Her characterization is efficient, and her moral struggle in relation to Hayley and Taylor feels complex and earned.

It’s like this across the board – you’ll note plot elements you’ve seen before, but rarely done this well. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of the franchise as a whole, they use these elements to tie in the lore of the previous installments. “Pacific Rim: The Black” does the nearly impossible – it makes “Uprising” better. It takes elements from the sequel that felt unneeded or misguided, and it gives them reason, attaches emotion, illustrates consequence.

This isn’t some cash-in on a franchise that wasn’t being used. This is an absolutely felt and studied continuation on the themes and details of “Pacific Rim”. The Drift – that process where two pilots have to share memories in order to make a jaeger work? It’s explored far more heavily as a sci-fi and moral concept than before. It still offers characters perspectives on each others’ trauma, but we also see how it can be abused when the wrong person gets hold of it.

There are exceptional details shown in these memories, too. For instance, Hayley finding the body of a friend is shown three times. The first is reality. The second two are memories in the drift. Each time it takes place, her movements are staged differently, the body is revealed in a slightly different way. As she views herself worse and worse, certain details of her memory change to paint her actions in that moment as less human, the encounter more horrific, her connection more distant. It’s a detailed example of survivor’s guilt, and the show doesn’t spotlight it to show off what it’s doing. It’s just there, an emotional reality that becomes a fact of the character.

Taylor reads as maybe around 18 or 20, and Hayley’s still a kid, maybe around 14 or 15. They’ve both been thrown into leadership positions over the last few years without guidance. Over the course of the series, they encounter horrible situations. They don’t act like resolute heroes; they act like inexperienced kids in over their heads – they screw up, they need time to process emotions, they forgive quickly, they linger in a dangerous situation because it’s the only one that’s solidly defined for them. It’s a minor note only seen a few times, but as a former jaeger cadet who trained in his youth, Taylor has anxiety over making quick decisions. There are small moments where he projects this on someone who’s no longer around to defend themselves. He makes a quick judgment on someone else’s decision-making, assigning them fault because he’s so apprehensive about his own.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” speeds along and its writing is efficient, but it’s filled with these little nuances and details that breathe immense life into its characters.

The voice actors are phenomenal. I watched in English and you get the sense that everyone was reading their lines within context, with superb direction and a defined sense of how these characters are perceiving each other. The music is good, and it brings back those strong orchestral cues for jaegers, kaiju, and hero moments.

One great decision they’ve made is that the human characters are animated with fewer frames per second. It’s a similar effect (though vastly different style) to “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse”, which animated at 12 frames per second instead of 24. This conveys motions as being a little faster or unexpected. It’s a more conscious style, but your eyes adapt quickly and it can often make movement feel more natural because it’s just that much less predictable.

By contrast, the jaeger vs. kaiju battles are always shown in much smoother animation, with higher frame rates. After your eyes have adjusted to 12 frames per second, where you’re filling in information between movements, this shift to a smoother, 24 fps rate can make things feel more deliberate. They aren’t happening more slowly, but your brain is translating the movement differently. It’s a brilliant choice that conveys the sheer scale and weight of the jaeger and kaiju. It mirrors that slower, deliberate fight choreography from the films and it takes advantage of how we perceive quality of movement in animation. It’s a mind-blowingly good decision.

If there’s a major issue, the character designs on Hayley and Mei should have been less sexualized. In a medium that’s seen Faye Valentine and Revy, you can often just be glad someone’s finally discovered the technology of buttoning their pants, but that becomes a low bar. The two characters are fully clothed the whole time, but some of their clothes are very form-fitting. (So are Taylor’s, but not in a way that sexualizes him.) This becomes more of an issue when we recognize that any read on Hayley still presents her as a child. Thankfully, they start throwing a loose jacket on her a few episodes in.

I don’t always know how far to criticize a series on decisions like this. We have countless shows that do far more to sexualize underage characters – the orgies in “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, Darren Barnet’s character in “Never Have I Ever”, George Sear’s character in “Love, Victor”. The actors are adults, but the characters aren’t. That’s not a defense for “Pacific Rim: The Black” or an attempt at whataboutism. It points out a double-standard that we need to stop exercising when we excuse our own culture’s media for it.

Right now, as a critic, it would be normal for me to lay into this series for a form-fitting costume design, while nobody would blink twice if I said the orgies from “Sabrina” were sexy. “Pacific Rim: The Black” should be criticized for that costume design decision. How much should it be criticized for it? My point is that I don’t fully know, because I live in a culture where it’s normalized to give our own media a pass on worse. It bothers me, I know it’s a problematic element, I know to call it out and notify readers it’s there. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much that does or doesn’t set the series back. How much do we isolate it as a problematic element on its own, or weigh it against the show as a whole?

Aside from that major issue, I have very momentary complaints, but that’s ultimately what they are – a detail in a fight that could’ve been done differently or a musical cue that could’ve been a notch more subdued. The plot gets wild at later points, but…well, welcome to “Pacific Rim”.

It’s rare for a show to have an intense, complex, winding plot that isn’t taken over by a writer’s ego – where it really feels like the characters themselves are the ones making decisions and feeling their way through it all.

“Pacific Rim: The Black” is lovely, wrenching, shocking, endearing, ridiculous, tense. It is everything I wanted. It takes that initial metaphor about people learning to communicate about loss and trauma, and it runs with it to talk about how we learn our way through it, how we sit with those demons, the terror of someone knowing how to manipulate them when we haven’t figured them out. The plot points are sometimes out there, but the storytelling around them is brilliant.

You can watch “Pacific Rim: The Black” on Netflix.

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