The first in his four-film Rebuild of Evangelion was a disappointing abridged rehash of the first few episodes of the TV series, most of the shots just upgrades of those from the show. The second gave us a lot more new material, but mostly stayed within the status quo until the game-changing ending, which brought us Third Impact sooner than we would have expected.
Now, with the third film, Evangelion creator, writer, and chief director Anno has taken the series into drastically new territory, far further than I expected. He may as well have subtitled the film “I Will Not Redo”. This is the audacious re-imagining we were all hoping for, and easily the most visionary and surreal Evangelion production yet. More than ever before, I feel that with Evangelion, anime fans are privy to one of the world’s richest filmmaking secrets. Esoteric as it may be, much of Evangelion 3.0 would dazzle leading western directors if they only knew it existed.
In terms of its place in the tetralogy, 3.0 upends the Evangelion furniture entirely. The preview at the end of the last film didn’t remotely convey how new and strange Shinji’s world is now (probably because most of the preview isn’t even in the film, the reason for which I’d love to learn). You should avoid reading anything about the plot before you go in. I knew nothing and was amazed at how much had changed. The contrast to the safe and familiar first film is so vast that I have to wonder if Anno sympathised with its critics. Particularly for those who’ve seen the original series, 3.0 feels like the dark alternate reality episode of a TV show.
But it’s no illusion, and how it came about isn’t clear. Chunks of backstory are initially missing and most aren’t filled in. For a project supposedly intended to make Evangelion more accessible and less introspective in order to attract an even wider audience, 3.0 is surprisingly alienating. God knows there’s a lot of atrocious, lowest common-demoninator anime, but I’m so impressed that films like this and Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (about the development of fighter planes between the world wars) are massive mainstream hits. 3.0 has toys and a promotional deal with Pizza Hut, yet it’s brazenly avant-garde and demands patience and detective work from its audience. Apart from a few gimmes, Anno expects us to piece together the story for ourselves.
I’m still not sure what was happening at the climax, and perhaps it’s less cohesive on closer scrutiny than we might hope. But Anno’s clear confidence in both his direction and his insane script (an Eva walking up a mountain of skulls to pull two spears from an enormous white corpse, for example) eliminates any doubts, at least while you’re watching. If non-anime fans who can embrace the less parochial Studio Ghibli but have been put off by Evangelion‘s anime staples like giant robot action, figure-hugging outfits, and juvenile fan service (the sole instance in 3.0 is woefully misjudged), they’re missing out on truly stunning imagery and ambitious, imaginative filmmaking. Evangelion 3.0 is a beautifully rendered fever dream, dripping with iconography and compositions that leave most live-action in the dust as well as animation. Some of it is on the nose and perhaps unearned (one incredible image of Rei nonetheless feels shoehorned in), but I dare adventurous film buffs to watch this, look past the niche anime tropes, and not be astounded by its power.
That said, the script takes a few shortcuts to its explosive surrealism. Characters don’t tell Shinji what he needs to know, and he makes some stupid decisions despite everyone telling him the opposite. You could argue that everyone’s naturally wary around Shinji given how he returns to the story, but it’s still fallout from Anno’s decision to throw us into the new status quo but not bring us up to speed. Hostility to Shinji has always been a hallmark of Evangelion, but it’s perhaps pushed too far into absurdity here.
Shinji’s arc illustrates that, despite the extreme narrative diversions, Anno remains faithful to Evangelion at its core. New characters, Evas, allegiances, and technology transform the film on the surface, but the themes and overall direction of the series remain the same. Gendou is still pursuing Instrumentality, the Evas are the key, and Shinji is still either driven or crippled by his sense of inadequacy. Sequences packed with radically different lore set in drastically altered locations are still fundamentally similar to what we’ve seen before, but the sleight-of-hand is forgivable because of the new level of experience it delivers. Whereas the pacing of the first two films was fitful and episodic – more like television – 3.0 is the first to feel truly cinematic. By destroying so much of what we knew, Evangelion has finally been reborn as cinema.
Evangelion 3.0 is screening as part of Reel Anime at select cinemas around Australia until Wednesday October 16.
Previously held every two years, Reel Anime now looks set to be an annual event. Thanks to Madman for such an incredible line-up two years running. I’ll be reviewing the remaining films before the season is over.