The Pacific Rim franchise is all about titanic battles between twisted, giant monsters from below and the armed robots known as jaegers, built to withstand them. But there’s another conflict in the films themselves: a vision of the global community that collides with standard Hollywood American-centered storytelling.
The films that opened the franchise – Pacific Rim (2013) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) – never quite managed to fuse these competing visions into a single unstoppable bio-mech of meaning. The films are big, loud, and, despite adequate flashes, deeply overwhelming. The new Netflix series Pacific Rim: The Black finally puts the Brobdingnagian fighters in a mechanism worthy of their size and strength. The show strides right past the same ancient tropics into a larger, more desolate, and much more satisfying landscape. At a moment when it is oppressively clear that Apocalypse cannot simply be punched in the face, Pacific Rim: The Black saves the hoarse, clinking franchise from irrelevance.
Pacific Rim had an unusually international birth for a Hollywood action film. Directed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, the film pays homage to Japanese monster films. The plot is about a world that is attacked by giant monsters or kaiju that pull themselves out of an interdimensional rift in the ocean. To fight the Kaiju, people build huge machines called jaegers. Two pilots per hunter combine their minds to control the robots and kick Kaiju in the ass. The Jaeger pilots come from all over the world; In the original film, a Jaeger is piloted by a married couple from Russia, another by three Chinese brothers. One of the main characters, pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi), is Japanese, while the leader of the Jaeger forces, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is British.
Despite these gestures toward international solidarity, the plot of the film is basically Top Gun with dinosaur-like creatures. British actor Charlie Hunnam plays the robotic role of American Raleigh Becket as the film squeezes into a robotic Hollywood plot. The Russians and Chinese pilots are all defeated or self-sacrificing while Mako Mori’s story arc is left out. All of the others exist to highlight the bravery and determination of the white American action guy.
To underscore the importance of American leadership, Pacific Rim shows that the Kaiju aren’t just big monsters. You are controlled by a kind of crushed spirit. This is a Cold War trope. Communist societies have often been compared to conformist insects, as in US President Ronald Reagan’s remark about the “anthill of totalitarianism”. Science fiction has taken up the theme of the evil collective, either directly in stories like Invasion of the Body Trappers or somewhat subversively in books like The Forever War and Ender’s Game. Refining the kaiju with this tradition transforms a Japanese genre that often focused on the dangers of nuclear power into a typical Hollywood celebration of American heroes who overcome hidden groupthink with irrepressible individualism and boast.
The confused sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising takes a few steps away from the American Hollywood narrative. The hero (played by John Boyega) is British, and the Chinese businesswoman Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), who at first looks like the villain of the play, turns out to be important allies. But the story still lies in the evils of the crush and the virtues of macho militarism. Different people may have a chance in the driver’s seat, but the thundering machine still follows Hollywood programming.
Pacific Rim: The black is something else, however. The series was written by the Americans Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle. But it is set in Australia and is animated by the Japanese studio Polygon Pictures under the directors Masayuki Uemoto, Susumu Sugai and Takeshi Iwata. The decision to factor in the Japanese influences of the franchise works extremely well. Unlike its movie predecessors, The Black gives up storytelling in Hollywood action films with its heroic hot-shot pilots and evil hive minds. Instead, a story emerges that is more atmospheric, less triumphant and more poignant.
The Netflix series takes place a few years after Pacific Rim: Uprising. The victory at the end of this film has proven illusory. Kaiju overran the planet; Much of human civilization has been destroyed. Taylor and Hayley Travis (voiced by Calum Worthy and Gideon Adlon) are the children of a couple who jointly drove a Jaeger. The Travises took their children and other young people to a safe valley and then went out to find help. However, they never returned. A few years later, Hayley discovers a hunter named Atlas Destroyer who is buried in a cave. After a devastating Kaiju attack leaves their refuge in ruins, Hayley and Taylor take the hunter to try to find their parents.
This is not a story about how the usual American heroes triumph over the usual global enemies – be they Russians, monster invaders, or terrorists. Atlas the Jaeger is a training model; It has no guns and Taylor and Hayley barely have the expertise to wield it. It’s more of a vehicle than a combat suit. As often as not, the children turn their tails and run when they run into trouble. The action is slow; Progress is hard and precarious. Instead of a story of vast technology ruling the world, it is a tale of people in a world too big to master, crawling around in the ruins created by the clash of indifferent superpowers.
Action movie stories about how the military saved the world may seem particularly hollow right now, as the world’s self-proclaimed hyperpower has spent the past year burying itself in a quagmire of fascism, plague, and death. Giant Kaiju is obviously not a deadly virus, but The Black is uncomfortably insightful on how people facing crisis can choose greed, ego, selfishness, and stubbornness over solidarity or courage. The show’s main antagonist isn’t actually the giant Kaiju Copperhead. It’s Shane (Andy McPhee), a cold-blooded gangster who deals in Jaeger parts. He brutalizes Taylor and Hayley partly because he wants their Jaeger and partly because he likes being a tough asshole. He’s also spent years transforming his adopted daughter, Mei (Victoria Grace), into an often remorseful but very efficient killing machine. Humans torture themselves in gratuitous, painful ways that even giant monsters cannot create.
The series isn’t all bleak. The original Pacific Rim films made up a large part of the “drift” in which two pilots merged their minds to control a Jaeger, but despite this metaphor for human connection, it struggled to depict relationships more complicated than warlike camaraderie . Pacific Rim: The Black, on the other hand, is full of different kinds of love, from Hayley’s and Taylor’s determination to find their parents, to Hayley’s spontaneous adoption of a small, silent child they call Boy who they find in a tube in a science laboratory .
The emotional climax of the series does not defeat a kaiju. Then Boy finds a jukebox and Taylor and Hayley jump up to teach him to dance. Even Mei joins in, the gun still strapped to her waist. Trauma, tragedy and death still loom over them ominously. But that’s even more of a reason to rock and practice silly dance moves when you have a moment of peace.
There are some places on earth where governments controlled the coronavirus and people can now dance together. Hollywood is not one of them, despite all of America’s vaunted military might and technology. In the primordial Pacific world, this failure of size is not calculated. But Pacific Rim: The Black found that sometimes smaller devices in different places lead to better art – and a better world.