The Pacific Rim franchise is all about titanic battles between twisted, giant monsters from the deep and the armed robots, known as Jaegers, built to resist them. But there's another conflict inside the films themselves: a vision of global community clashing with the default American-centered storytelling of Hollywood.
The movies that inaugurated the franchise—Pacific Rim (2013) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)— never quite managed to meld those competing visions into a single unstoppable bio-mech of meaning. The films are big, loud, and, despite flashes of adequacy, deeply underwhelming. The new Netflix series Pacific Rim: The Black, though, finally puts the Brobdingnagian combatants into a mechanism worthy of their size and power. The show strides right past the same old tropes and onto a larger, bleaker, and much more satisfying landscape. At a moment when it is depressingly clear that apocalypse isn't something you can just punch in the face, Pacific Rim: The Black rescues the hoary, clanking franchise from irrelevance.
Pacific Rim had an unusually international birth for a Hollywood action film. Helmed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, the movie is a tribute to Japanese monster films. The plot involves a world under assault by giant monsters, or Kaiju, who pull themselves out of an interdimensional breach in the ocean. To fight the Kaiju, humans build huge machines called Jaegers; two pilots per Jaeger link minds to control the robots and kick Kaiju ass. The Jaeger pilots are drawn from all over the world; in the original film, one Jaeger is piloted by a husband-and-wife team 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, though, the movie's plot is basically Top Gun with dinosaur-like creatures. British actor Charlie Hunnam seats himself in the robotic role of American Raleigh Becket much as the movie squeezes itself into a robotic Hollywood plot. The Russians and the Chinese pilots are all defeated or sacrifice themselves, while Mako Mori's story arc is sidelined. Everyone else exists to highlight the bravery and resolve of the white American action dude.
To underline the importance of American leadership, Pacific Rim reveals that the Kaiju are not just big monsters; they're controlled by a kind of hive mind. That's a Cold War trope. Communist societies were often analogized to conformist insects, as in US President Ronald Reagan's comment about the "ant heap of totalitarianism." Science fiction picked up on the theme of the evil collective, either straightforwardly in narratives like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or somewhat subversively in books like The Forever War and Ender's Game. Grafting the Kaiju onto that tradition transforms a Japanese genre that often focused on the dangers of atomic power into a typical Hollywood celebration of American heroes overcoming hidebound groupthink with irrepressible individualism and swagger.
The confused sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising takes a couple of steps away from the Hollywood American narrative. The hero (played by John Boyega) is British, and the Chinese businesswoman Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) who initially looks like she's the villain of the piece turns out to be a key ally. But the story is still mired in the evils of hive minds and the virtues of macho militarism. Different people may get a chance in the driver's seat, but the thundering machine is still following Hollywood programming.
Pacific Rim: The Black, though, is something else. The series was written by Americans Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle. But it's set in Australia and animated by Japanese studio Polygon Pictures under directors Masayuki Uemoto, Susumu Sugai, and Takeshi Iwata. The decision to embrace the franchise's Japanese influences works exceedingly well. Unlike its film predecessors, The Black abandons Hollywood action movie storytelling, with its heroic hotshot pilots and evil hive minds. Instead, it creates a story that is more atmospheric, less triumphal, and more affecting.
The Netflix series is set some years after Pacific Rim: Uprising. The victory at the end of that film has proved to be 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 piloted a Jaeger together. The Travises got their children and other young people to a safe valley and then went off to find help. They never returned, though. Some years later, Hayley discovers a Jaeger called Atlas Destroyer buried in a cave. After a devastating Kaiju attack leaves their refuge in ruins, Hayley and Taylor take the Jaeger to try to find their parents.
This isn't 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 weapons, and Taylor and Hayley barely have the expertise to guide it. It's more a vehicle than a combat suit. As often as not, the kids turn tail and run as soon as they encounter trouble. The plot is slow; progress is hard and precarious. Instead of a tale of huge tech that masters the world, this is a narrative about people on a world too big to master, scrambling around in the ruins left by the clash of uncaring superpowers.
Action movie stories about saving the world via the military might seem particularly hollow right now, as the world's self-declared hyperpower has spent the last year burying itself in a morass of fascism, plague, and death. Giant Kaiju aren't a deadly virus, obviously, but The Black is uncomfortably insightful about the way that humans confronted with crisis can choose greed, ego, self-interest, and stubbornness over solidarity or courage. The main antagonist of the series isn't really the enormous Kaiju Copperhead. It's Shane (Andy McPhee) a cold-blooded gangster who trades in Jaeger parts. He brutalizes Taylor and Hayley in part because he wants their Jaeger and in part just because he likes being a tough guy asshole. He's also spent years turning his adoptive daughter Mei (Victoria Grace) into an often remorseful but very efficient killing machine. Humans torture each other in gratuitous, painful ways even giant monsters can't manage.
The series isn't all grim. The original Pacific Rim films made much of the "drift," in which two pilots meld minds to control a Jaeger, but despite this metaphor for human connection, it had trouble portraying relationships more complicated than martial camaraderie. Pacific Rim: The Black, in contrast, is filled with lots of different kinds of love, from Hayley and Taylor's determination to find their parents to Hayley's spontaneous adoption of a small, silent child they name Boy whom they find in a tube in a science lab.
The emotional high point of the series isn't defeating a Kaiju. It's when Boy finds a jukebox and Taylor and Hayley leap up to teach him to dance. Even Mei joins in, gun still strapped to her hip. Trauma, tragedy, and death still hang over them ominously. But that's all the more reason to rock out 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 dance together right now. Hollywood isn't one of them, for all of America's vaunted military might and tech. In the world of the original Pacific Rim, that failure of hugeness doesn't compute.
But Pacific Rim: The Black has figured out that sometimes getting into smaller contraptions, in different places, makes for better art—and a better world.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.