Pacific Rim: The Black–Sci-fi animated series rises above its live-action source material

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you missed last year’s sci-fi animated series Pacific Rim: The Black, don’t worry.  A second season arrived this year and both joint American and Japanese-created seasons are streaming now on Netflix.  In fourteen episodes the series accomplished something unusual, greatly improving on the big-budget movie franchise that began with writer/director and creator Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim.  The movies provided the ultimate fan service for sci-fi and fantasy fans, merging Godzilla kaiju and Transformers-inspired elements in a way that ultimately became something loud and big but forgettable.  Pacific Rim: The Black goes further, crossing a 3D style of animation with 2D anime characters, with futuristic sci-fi tech imagery from Tron and Tron: Uprising and a detailed science fiction expansion world similar to Netflix’s live-action Altered Carbon series.  It’s also a better kaiju story than two decades of Godzilla and Transformers movies.

For those who might not view the modern styles of anime technology as “true” anime, they may find this series changes their minds.  Although the series looks most like an upgrade to the 1980s Transformers animated series or Gatchaman or Battle of the Planets, the personal story elements–the attention to characters and their relationships–is 100% anime, including the incorporation of archetype characters from classic anime shows.  The series’ best supporting character is a familiar odd fellow, here in the form of an elder kaiju whisperer reminiscent of Tom Petty’s mayor of Rose City in The Postman.  This series is a sequel to the second live-action movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising.  Although the giant human-controlled fighting Jaeger robots continue to fight another day across the planet, only one remains in Australia, which has become overrun with kaiju, a place now known as The Black.  Five years after the big world war in Uprising, Australia is something worse than a Mad Max dystopia.  This is where we catch up with a husband and wife pilot team and their son and younger daughter, and where the animated series begins.

The first season sees the parents leaving the children at a small mountain settlement to try to find someone to repair the last known Jaeger.  Five years later, as Taylor and Hayley, now teenagers, have not heard from their parents, they try to decide whether to venture off on their own.  As one group leaves the settlement, Hayley falls into a hole in the ground that holds a formerly stowed away training Jaeger robot.  The stakes are high from the first episode, as everyone around the teens is killed, often brutally, ripped apart by the giant variants of kaiju that appear episode after episode.  This future is bleak and the story is richer because it’s also not coupled with the typical false hopes.  Key characters die, similar to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  Anything can happen, and that makes each new episode more suspenseful.  Three other lead characters enter the picture and are integral to the second season’s twists and turns.  Mei is a girl about Taylor’s age who the teens encounter trying to find a power battery in a demolished city.  She has incredible survival skills, and viewers soon learn why, as she takes them to her boss, a tall bearded man named Shane, one of the series’ villains.  The teens also find a young mute boy who Hayley takes under her wing.

Viewers are introduced to an incredible, eye-popping handling of the floating sci-fi tech controls (what movie audiences were first dazzled with in Steven Spielberg’s live-action Minority Report) that assist the kids as they try to pilot their Jaeger.  One of the most impressive sci-fi features is the Aliens franchise “MOTHER”-like computer called Loa that helps them on their journey.  Voiced by Erica Lindbeck (English) and Iku Minase (Japanese), it looks a bit like the floating element called “Bit” in the original Tron movie.  At times the effects are so well rendered they appear like the real-life digital CG effects in Altered Carbon.  Other comparisons to that series include a fully fleshed-out world, complex relationships, and ultimately, in season two, even a similar fanatical religion.  The film was split with American writing and character development and Japanese animation and concept art development, and stunning choreography of action scenes.

For anyone who isn’t a fan of either giant Transformers-scale robots or Godzilla universe giant monsters, just wait a few minutes and other sci-fi tropes will take over.  One episode has a giant tick that acts like the facehuggers of Alien.  Several creatures, giant and Jurassic Park raptor-sized, look like they could be related to the fantastic beasts from Attack the Block.  The training montage evokes Ender’s Game.  Another episode introduces creepy hooded and masked witches straight out of the latest horror series.  It should be no surprise the show has creative talent who also worked on the brilliant Tron: Uprising animated series.

Writer Greg Johnson’s story has emotion, energy, high adventure, drama.  Viewers will want to come back for the next episode because the characters are written well.  If you enjoyed the male and female leads of Valerian and Laureline in the French comics and the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, having a brother and sister in a similar sci-fi tale is a good story switch.  And if you do love the Transformers and Godzilla, get ready for a story superior to what you’ve seen on the big screen before–and a better use of kaiju monsters than you’re used to.

If the art and writing don’t sell you, just wait for the sound.  You can’t understate the value of the sound effects in the series.  The synthesizer bass notes of the kaiju appearances may make you jump out of your seat.  Brandon Campbell’s musical score provides the perfect support for the most revved-up action sequences.

For sci-fi fans, Pacific Rim: The Black has it all.  Don’t miss the complete series in two seasons, both streaming now on Netflix.

Leave a Reply