Netflix’s Pacific Rim anime takes all the big, cheesy fun out of Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and its sequel film are nonsensical smackdowns inspired by classic tokusatsu stories and giant-robot anime. They’re premised on an endless conflict between giant military-owned robots called Jaegers and equally enormous monsters called kaiju. Both movies featured paper-thin plots, designed to bring these two forces to blows.

Once the creatures and mecha are locked in combat, the films provide a fun spectacle filled with cheesy lines and campy Power Rangers-esque villains. The films gleefully center on cliché action-movie lines like “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.” Main characters can be sacrificed at a moment’s notice, as long as their deaths read as heroic.

Now, the Pacific Rim franchise, which was once helmed by del Toro (Tales of Arcadia, Shape of Water) and writer Travis Beacham (Carnival Row) has made the jump to anime with Pacific Rim: The Black, the latest collaboration between Netflix and production company Polygon Pictures (Ajin: Demi-human, Transformers: War for Cybertron). Del Toro and Beacham weren’t involved — Pacific Rim: The Black was helmed by Greg Johnson (X-Men Evolution) and Craig Kyle (Thor: Ragnarok).

Though the series bears the same name as the over-the-top ridiculous movies, Pacific Rim: The Black is humorless. All its predecessors’ cheesy heroics and humor are gone. Pacific Rim: The Black is a gritty tale of survival, as twin fledgling Jaeger pilots Hayley Travis (Gideon Adlon) and Taylor Travis (Calum Worthy) attempt to find their parents within a kaiju-infested Australia.

Two Jaeger pilots in battle suits move in coordination in Pacific Rim: The Black Image: Netflix

As in the films, the kaiju are a looming threat that can make any plans go awry, but the series grants equal focus to the deceitful human villains who control Australia’s black market. The human conflicts are often more psychological than the large-scale bombastic combat the franchise is known for, which makes it feel a bit more grounded than its predecessors.

Although Pacific Rim: The Black is likely a better show without the spectacle, it doesn’t feel much like Pacific Rim, either. Without bombastic showdowns and campy dialogue, why should you watch a Pacific Rim story?

And the choice to make Pacific Rim: The Black an animated story brings that question into even sharper focus. In live-action, Pacific Rim stands out. American live-action rarely centers its stories around giant mecha or creatures unless they come with successful international pedigrees already attached, like Godzilla or Power Rangers. The animation field is far more crowded with giants and giant-scale face-offs. Netflix alone has options like Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, and Ultraman. These shows all take much more original angles on the ideas Pacific Rim: The Black is aiming for.

To its credit, Pacific Rim: The Black performs a boatload of worldbuilding for the franchise. It finally brings in humans who exist outside of the military and kaiju conflict. Crucially, the anime shows that both kaiju eggs and Jaeger components can fetch a fair sum, implying that fallout from the conflict has created some degree of secondary market.

It also introduces humans who aren’t opposed to the kaiju having a presence on Earth. These are both significantly different reactions to the looming threat than what the films show. Treating a kaiju presence as part of a new normal for civilians is an interesting way to live. It’s a solid “on the ground” approach to the Pacific Rim world that’s almost entirely absent in the movies.

A big, drippy black-and-green kaiju with tiny glowing red eyes in Pacific Rim: The Black Image: Netflix

Pacific Rim: The Black doesn’t feel anything like a Pacific Rim film entry. It has all the visual markings of the franchise, like Jaegers and kaiju, but it’s so dour that it sucks all the enjoyment out of a storyline that was designed for cinematic thrills. The movies move mecha anime into live-action, and gain some astonishing scope and gravitas in the process, but by taking the story straight back into anime, the creators leech away everything that made it unique. These changes make Pacific Rim: The Black feel closer to a generic giant-robot anime than the enjoyably cheesy smackdown of the first two films. A second season of the series has already been planned, but if it’s anything like this one, Netflix subscribers and anime fans would be better off watching (or re-watching) Gurren Lagann.

Pacific Rim: The Black is now streaming on Netflix.