Review

by James Beckett,

Pacific Rim: The Black Season 1

Synopsis:
Pacific Rim: The Black Season 1
Following the events of Pacific Rim and Pacific Rim: Uprising, the decades' long war between humankind and the monstrous Kaiju continues to take its toll. In Australia, not even the valiant efforts of the Jaeger fighting machines and their pilots can save the continent from being abandoned by the world at large, leaving those that remain to struggle for survival in The Black. Two of these survivors are Haley and Taylor Travis, whose parents Brina and Ford were respected Jaeger pilots who have been missing for five years, since Australia went dark. Tired of being stuck in an endless loop of survival and fruitless waiting, Haley uncovers the Atlus Destroyer, a long-abandoned training Jaeger manned by the AI Loa. It isn't long, however, before this miraculous discovery is marred by more destruction. Now, with an endless wasteland of hostile humans and deadly Kaiju standing between them and the truth of what happened to their parents, Haley and Taylor both set off as Atlus Destroyer's newest pilots, and the buried secrets that they unearth may well shake their world to its very core…
Review:

As a lifelong fan of giant robot anime and kaiju movies, I adored Guillermo del Toro's 2013 monster/mecha smash'em-up, Pacific Rim. I was less enthusiastic about the sequel, 2018's Pacific Rim: Uprising, since it lacked any participation from del Toro and many of the original creative team, and the few returning characters from the first film were, in my opinion, ill-served by the directions it took the franchise's narrative. Here in 2021, though, the world of Pacific Rim has gotten another chance to capture the imagination of old and new fans, this time in the form of Pacific Rim: The Black, a Netflix original anime that purports to build on the ideas of the first two films while exploring creative new avenues of the Pacific Rim universe.

This series, which is the brainchild of a team consisting mostly of Western writers and producers, is animated by the Japanese team at Polygon Pictures. To be honest, I was initially wary of Polygon's involvement in PR:TB's production, because I haven't historically enjoyed their approach to 3D animation. Not only have I found the direction of their series to be somewhat flat and uninspired, but I also specifically don't like how they cut the frames out of their character animation, which is an apparently intentional choice meant to mimic the look of traditional 2D anime. Shows like Studio Orange's BEASTARS (another Netflix anime) can totally get away with this, but Polygon's character rigs are nowhere near as expressive as that, most of the time, and they look especially funky when the rest of the action on screen — including the Jaegers and the Kaiju — are animated at the usual smooth framerate that you tend to see in 3D cartoons.

Still, while a lot of the quieter dramatic sequences suffer from Polygon's inconsistent animation quality and direction, I will admit that I got used to their style quickly enough, and it didn't bother me at all once the action started to kick into gear. I don't know if I'll ever like the discordant look that this mix of framerates and animation styles produces, but Pacific Rim: The Black does feel like a true, blue anime by the time its season wraps up, which is a commendable feat considering how many of the show's contemporaries fail the anime smell test (including some of Polygon's own series).

In most respects, in fact, I would say Pacific Rim: The Black is a success, though I would still have some reservations about it even without nitpicking the visuals. Given its basic setup, there are two key areas that PR:TB absolutely needed to excel at in order to work: First off, we had to get some goddamn giant robots punching some goddamn giant monsters in the face really good, and PR:TB does absolutely deliver on that front…eventually. Second, given that its story centers on the perilous journeys of siblings Haley (Gideon Adlon) and Taylor Travis (Calum Worthy), their relationship has to be compelling enough to drive a full season of television. If PR:TB failed at this, then it wouldn't matter how good the monster smash-ups were, because viewers wouldn't care enough to stick around and watch them.

Thankfully, Haley and Taylor work well as our protagonists. Though their dynamic – the stubborn and protective older brother vs. the willful and reckless younger sister — is one we've seen plenty of times before, the earnest writing keeps their characters grounded amidst the Kaiju-craziness of their surroundings. The siblings' chemistry is bolstered by their actors' naturalistic vocal performances, in particular Adlon's. Worthy's Taylor can occasionally sound a bit lost and under-emotive, especially in the earliest episodes, but Adlon's charismatic and dynamic performance as Haley keeps the energy of the script going.

There are some heavy scenes where Hayley is forced to reckon with the role she has played in the deaths of her friends and family, and while the show doesn't quite dig deep enough into the dramatic consequences of these moments, Adlon sells them just enough to keep viewers from asking too many questions. This is also where the show makes great use of the Jaeger's signature “Drifting” mechanic, whereby its two pilots have to mind-meld in order to effectively wield the Jaegers' destructive capabilities against the Kaiju. As an actual means of piloting a giant robot, Drifting is almost comically problematic, but it makes for an excellent psychedelic side-show for the audience. The scenes where Haley and Taylor have to confront each other's buried guilt, trauma, and anger in the Drift are some of the best in the series, allowing us a front-row seat to our heroes' unraveling memories and feelings, and giving the show a chance to stretch its legs both visually and dramatically.

Unfortunately, the show stumbles a bit whenever its attention is diverted away from the Jaeger/Kaiju battles and the Travis siblings' personal struggles. Showrunners Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle have writing credits for most of the season's scant seven episodes, and you get the feeling that they wanted to push the Pacific Rim franchise in a different direction from its big-screen counterparts by focusing on the ragtag survivors of a world left behind, rather than the heroic Jaeger pilots on the frontline of the Kaiju war. I like this idea a lot in theory, but what it amounts to for the first three or four episodes of this very short run is a poor-man's take on Mad Max, except one where giant monsters occasionally show up to cause trouble.

The problem is that the sparse Australian desert and the destroyed cityscapes littered throughout it aren't particularly distinct or memorable, and that goes double for pretty much every human that isn't Haley or Taylor. A few of the supporting cast members do okay, like the fierce and combative Mei (Victoria Grace) and the snarky Joel (Vincent Piazza), who are members of a group of survivors led by a shady fellow named Shane (Andy McPhee). Shane, I'm sorry to report, is a total snooze of a villain, whose only standout feature is that he is somehow one of only a couple of people in this cast to sport an Australian accent. The plot also drags a lot in these first episodes, giving the distinct impression of a series that is stalling for time before getting to the good stuff.

The final few episodes are where Johnson and Kyle's narrative begins to take shape, though, and when PR:TB gets to “the good stuff”, it really is good. This is the point where the show drops some major references to characters and plot beats from the movies, including one cameo that has surprising ramifications for Taylor's character arc. The last pair of episodes are also where one of the supporting characters — a feral kid who is creatively named “Boy” — finally gets something to do other than noodle about in the background of shots, and it is awesome as hell.

Before these developments, Pacific Rim: The Black seems hesitant to get really weird with its visuals and writing; as the show embraces the more ludicrous elements of its world and story, it shines like a magma-drenched Kaiju getting a laser beam blasted through its skull. Haley and Taylor's extended traipse through the unforgiving Black was a fine start to their adventure, but Pacific Rim, like many of the great series about giant robots battling evil monsters, is all about escalating itself to absurdity and beyond. If Pacific Rim: The Black can use future seasons to make good on some of the wilder promises of this first season's final chapters and crank the Bonkers Kaiju Action dial up a notch or two, then Netflix might have a real winner on its hands.

Grade:
Overall : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B

+ Lots of potential for an interesting and dark take on the Pacific Rim universe, Haley and Taylor are heroes you can root for, kickass Kaiju action (especially in the final episodes),
Story takes a little too long to get going, generic villain and underwhelming side characters, inconsistent direction and animation from Polygon Pictures

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Production Info:
Episode Director:
Takeshi Iwata
Susumu Sugai
Masayuki Uemoto
Art Director: Yuki Moriyama
Supervising Director:
Hiroyuuki Hayashi
Jae Hong Kim
Executive producer: Shūzō Shiota

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Pacific Rim: The Black (ONA)

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