Review thus far: Rebuild of Evangelion

The original incarnation of Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the great anime series of all time. Not for its time. Not because of its ever-present influence on the anime scene. Evangelion is a genuine masterwork of science fiction, and a powerful deconstruction of the then-stale and still-stale mecha genre. Personally, I like almost everything about the series, save some of the more unsavoury aspects of its fanbase. I like Eva Unit-01. I like The End of Evangelion movie. I like Shinji’s whining. Hell, I like the last two episodes of the original, mess that they are. So I was eager to see how the Rebuild of Evangelion – a set of four animated films retelling the original’s story – would stand in comparison to the success of the series’ absurd pedigree. With more budget than he ever thought possible, series lead writer and director Hideaki Anno set out to recreate Evangelion the way he originally envisioned it; the 1995 version was always held back by lack funding, technology, and reportedly, a severely depressed creator. As of now, after the many delays, three of four films have made their way out, with the fourth scheduled to arrive sometime next year. So, let’s have a look at how Rebuild of Evangelion has shaped up thus far, and whether or not you should be totally stoked for Evangelion: Final.

Quick warning: spoilers! Though I’ll try not to ruin the new movies themselves, I will be discussing some finer points of the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, so if you’ve not seen that (and really, why would you not have?) you may not want to go on. But to be fair, the strength lies in its execution of plot twists rather than the twists themselves.

Evangelion: 1.11 You are (Not) Alone

Weird naming schemes for these movies, huh?

Evangelion: 1.11 You are (Not) Alone (henceforth referred to as Evangelion 1.11) is a fantastic opening to the Rebuild series. Evangelion 1.11 tells the tale of a 14 year old boy roped into piloting a biological machine purposed with brutally killing “angels” that periodically descend from the heavens intent on getting to the centre of the futuristic Tokyo 3, effectively triggering the “Third Impact” and the destruction of humanity. Shinji Ikari, our protagonist with daddy issues, and ever the magnet of unwarranted criticism from the anime community, slowly learns both the joy and hardships of maturing in world which punishes failures with severe beatdowns (physically and psychologically) while offering little praise for successes. It’s the classic opening to the timeless Evangelion story, well-preserved and well-presented.

And man, do I mean well-preserved. Evangelion 1.11 feels like a perfect conglomerate of a select few opening episodes of the original. Some shots, and even some key frames (although redrawn), from the original will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s seen Evangelion. This is particularly apparent during Shinji’s first battle, against the third angel Sachiel (the slime lookin’ one), which plays out exactly as it did in the 1995 version. Adding to that, many of the music tracks (which are sooo sooo good) are redone, appearing in the same places they would originally. To be honest, I didn’t expect this sort of detail to be put into the films. It’s not like Evangelion 1.11 rips from the source material verbatim; many of the iconic scenes are left intact, with interesting changes around them that help smoothen out the plot and pacing. Which brings us to something this first movie in particular has over original: story pacing.

Fantastic as the classic Evangelion is, it suffers from some slower parts here and there, in large part due to budget constraints. The budget being the opposite of constrained this time around, Evangelion 1.11 covers its story in much less time, hitting all the most important parts of the source material while not being forced into long stretches of interesting-though-aimless dialogue and subdued animation. This does come at a small cost though, namely that the film has less intimate moments with its characters. I feel the constraints of the original Evangelion made for some poignant albeit quiet moments, and though 1.11 occasionally takes the time to unwind, the general atmosphere is one of constant alertness rather than creeping unease. This means that we get to see a little less of Shinji’s new home life, school, and general angstiness for an experience that focuses a little more on the action.

This slight shift in focus is something I’m alright with, because by and large, the action scenes retain the same high-risk threat and horror undertones that color the best fights in the original. Massive, biological robots lumber around the city battling just-as-massive, grotesque angels. These almost always result in disturbing stints of blood and gore, sullying the pristine, futuristic cityscape. As in the original series, the frantic bouts are both mesmerising and terrifying, at times more so than the 1995 version due to the bonkers production. I say at times, because there if there’s one looming elephant that overshadows parts of the entire reboot, it would be the use of poorly-integrated CGI. At times, the Evas are rendered using three-dimensional art, which is always visually worse than their stunning hand-drawn counterparts. There are occasions when the enemy angels are done using GCI and admittedly, look relatively good, though only because of their naturally polygonal, otherworldly form. The use of CGI in this film series, and anime in general, is a weighty topic, and one that will be discussed in my analysis of the third movie (as it’s the worst offender of the three). Just know that the hand-drawn animation of the Evas’ movement is fantastic, and the obvious though infrequent use of CG for them is a big disappointment.

Put simply: it’s a great movie, whether you’re familiar with Evangelion or not, because Evangelion is great, and most of the great things remain great in this outing. It’s all here. The series has always been about subverting the tropiness of mecha anime, providing insight into the lives of children who’re forced into battling traumatizing monstrosities, and then examining the repercussions of that. In fact, I’ve never bought the “Shinji is a whiney baby and therefore the show sucks” argument. Evangelion is about how these situations would turn young people onto that, you butt. You sound like high school bullies when they say stuff like that.

Anyway! Fantastic art direction, fantastic music, fantastic visuals for the most part. The imagery is inspiring, breath-taking, evocative, and the ending is near-perfect. Evangelion: 1.11 You are (Not) Alone is a great start to this classic series’ re-launch and an obvious recommendation to anyone who’s interested.

Evangelion: 2.22 You can (Not) Advance

It’s okay kids; Asuka’s in this one.

I’ll start by saying that a good portion of what was stated about Evangelion 1.11 holds true for 2.22: wonderful sound design, creative visual flare held back by unappreciated GCI models, solidly insightful characters, and less moments of drag than the ‘95 version. What I’d like to discuss here, are the deviations from the main canon, and the way 2.22 goes about recreating the material as compared to 1.11.

With the completion of the first two movies, it becomes apparent that the overall tone has shifted slightly from that of the original. Clearly, not every episode is going to make it into the reboot, with the cast fighting off a new angel almost every episode of the 26 episode series; that’d make for more than four movies, so a good portion had to be cut. The interesting (not necessarily bad) thing is the choice: for starters, much of the less-serious content is absent. Gone are the contents of the episode where Shinji and Asuka play DDR to get their synchronization rate up; as is that silly episode paying homage to Saturday morning cartoons, where they defeat an angel after remembering their school lesson on thermal expansion. These more lighthearted aspects are foregone in order to focus in on the serious elements, which at the very least, adds a little more consistency (though I personally enjoy the humor in Evangelion).

Also missing is the battle against the twelfth angel Lefiel (the egg lookin’ one). Shinji and Eva Unit-01 bursting from the angel’s shadow is a harrowing sight to behold, and to me, was one of the most iconic in the original show. There comes a point in this second movie, actually, when fans can tell that most of the specific content from the first series has been cut, because right at the end, after altering some key events, Evangelion 2.22 goes head-first down its own path, setting audiences up for the complete departure that is 3.33, and eschewing big parts of the canon.

But we get ahead of ourselves! Let’s get to those slight alterations first.

The first, most apparent difference is the inclusion of a new Eva pilot who never appeared in the original: Mari. Though not very developed, and poorly-integrated into the dynamic Shinji, Rei and Asuka have going on at this point, her presence – though curious – doesn’t manage to detract from the film (wait ‘till we get to the third, though). In all, the decision is questionable and has no real payoff, but is ultimately neutral.

Asuka’s introduction also marks a departure. She appears in Japan, effectively removing the need to have the cast visit Germany; it’s a quick change that keeps the focus on the original setting. Fine by me. There’s a small gripe to be had with her incarnation here, in that Evangelion 2.22 only hints at the reasons behind her demeanor (loneliness, attention seeking, parental complexes) rather than actually addressing them as done is Neon Genesis Evangelion, and End of Evangelion in particular. This is not quite the lost cause it seems to be, however: Asuka also partakes in a relatively significant story alteration that is undoubtedly for the better.

Anyone who’s seen the original Evangelion will surely remember the episode with Eva Unit-03: an Evangelion imported from the US that happens to be infected with an angel. This makes for one of the best scenes the show has to offer, when Shinji refuses to destroy the rampaging Eva that contains his high school friend. NERV orders the activation of Unit-01’s dummy plug – which incurs a sort of berserk autopilot – and spurs the horrifying destruction of Unit-03 and potential death of Shinji’s friend. The only two things I feel hold this otherwise perfect spectacle back in the sudden inclusion of Shinji’s classmate as a pilot, and the fact that he survives the savaging – which is of course an optimistic thing, though I feel it lessens the impact somewhat. In Evangelion 2.22, it is Asuka who pilot tests the infected unit-03, and is rendered comatose as a result of the battle, not to be seen for the rest of the movie. This slight change makes a fantastic scene even better, by placing it more in the realm of believability, and by revising it to a character both the viewer and Shinji are more partial to.

By far though, the wildest change comes from battle at the end of the film. And I’m talking like, completely off the Evangelion rails wild here. But not it a bad way. Not at all. Zeruel the angel (the cloth lookin’ one) shows up just as he did in the original; same design, same attacks. And for the most part, the battle plays out the same way and everything seems to be gearing up for the chilling awakening of Eva Unit-01; but that doesn’t happen. Some new jargon is dropped, Eva Unit-01 becomes a God-like creature, Shinji and Rei share a compelling and beautiful little scene, and Third Impact is imminent. The whole scene is lavishly orchestrated, to the point where the impending apocalypse doesn’t seem so bad. Sure, I would have loved to see Unit-01’s proper awakening with modern technology, but we have that already. It’ll always be there in the original series. What’s here is haunting, full of promise, and invokes a wonderful feeling of excitement over the potential direction of the film to follow. It’s another perfect example of some of the more intelligent changes the Rebuild series decided to go with.

So, with said smart changes and a careful grasp of the source material, Evangelion: 2.22 You can (Not) Advance is a slightly more troubled though worthy follow-up to an amazing opening.

Evangelion: 3.33 You can (Not) Redo

I can (not) stand this movie.

After two fairly excellent movie forays, Rebuild of Evangelion messes up biiig time. Evangelion: 3.33 You can (Not) Redo is an utter mess. As a movie. As a follow-up to Evangelion 2.22. It’s so problematic and destructive that I don’t know where to start. It actually took a good portion of the movie for me to finally admit this; I didn’t want to acknowledge most of the garbage this film pulls after the high I was on from the previous one. But the more I think about it, the more I dislike it. Egh.

Evangelion 3.33 takes place a full 14 years after the happenings of 2.22. Viewers are subjected to a bad-looking CGI action scene, and then along with Shinji, are thrown onto a ship full of cast members both foreign and familiar. I swear to gosh, this ship is the embodiment of all the issues present in the first part of this movie. It’s called the Wunder, and is an ill-designed 3D animated object filled with poor excuses for people which are either your idea of typical anime characters, or ex-members of NERV who have become equal parts insipid and irrational over the time skip. Yep, extraordinarily ill-designed. Remember how I said we’d get back to the GCI thing? No? Well let’s do that now then.

I feel the computer generated visuals, truly and wholeheartedly, weigh the entire production down. All three movies fall victim to this, but this third one seems to go out of its way to squander the beautiful art direction with sterile, unnatural action scenes rendered in poor 3D. And I’m not saying that because I’m some sort of conservative, 2D hand drawn purist; GCI can look amazing, and often does outside of anime. Look at Frozen or Paperboy. We have the technology, and supposedly the budget for these movies was through the roof. Why does it look this bad? It removes all sense weight and personality (animation-wise) from the characters, as well as the metallic sheen that usually accompanies the Evas when drawn normally. And the air ship is the worst offender of this: it just floats around entirely unanimated, retaining the same shading, looking incredibly silly. If I wanted to see awful three-dimensional models of giant robots duke it out in a blood-deluged Tokyo, I’d play Sin and Punishment on the Nintendo 64 (which, now that I think about it, is pretty much just Evangelion). The persistent contrast between moving from unflattering 3D to beautiful 2D is an unfortunate occurrence that’s all too common in modern anime, one that should stop entirely or make some huge strides. As in the Berserk movies and Fate/Zero, entire scenes are ruined by unruly CGI, and it’s sad to see.

But hark, the issues run deeper still. I’d go as far as saying the entirety of the cast – save Shinji and Kaworu – is disposable. Most of the gang is here, and aside from some clothing alterations, remain unchanged after the mysterious 14-year gap, because who knows why. The movie doesn’t seem to. Misato and Asuka seem to reset, leaving behind any character development (and three films in it becomes apparent that it’s minimal in the Rebuild series) they shared with Shinji behind in the second film. Rei’s character suffers a similar fate, though at the very least we get an explanation for this behaviour. Mari makes a return, piloting a pink Eva and doing things reminiscent of your average headstrong, “fighting is fun” Shōnan character. She’s gone from neutral to insufferable over the course of the last movie, and is entirely perfunctory. Seriously, why? We have that character already: Mari is Asuka devoid of any psychological or behavioural justification.

Oh, and commander Ikari is still a total prick, and unlike the original series, three movies in we have yet to get insight into why he’s a total prick. They just gave him some Cyclops headgear and called it a day. On top of that, nothing anyone says or does makes sense anymore. Yeah, there’s the time skip and everyone’s peeved at Shinji for what happened 14 years ago. But no one bothers giving him the time of day, and there are multiple scenes where large portions of the ensuing calamities could have been prevented had anyone taken a second to explain what’s going on. The scenario writing just comes off as amateurish, in all honesty.

We can take solace in knowing that it’s not all bad, though. The one grace Evangelion 3.33 has is the interaction between Shinji and Kaworu. There’s a fairly substantial emphasis put on developing their relationship, going as far as spending more time with them than even the original series; we get some genuinely believable scenes with the two, and 3.33 even retains the homosexual undertones. Of course, Rebuild still finds a way to funk this up, altering Kaworu’s death in a way that admittedly is an interesting nod to the original, but removes much of the tragedy: Shinji is no longer responsible for it, extracting any sense of confliction that came with the beautifully drawn-out scene the ’95 version had. It’s all very disappointing, because little aspects like these lead me to believe that there’s a good movie somewhere in here, submerged beneath a sea of nonsensical writing and CGI robots.

Let me explain: social isolation is a big part of what makes up Shinji’s psychological turmoil. And we have the perfect embodiment of that in the time skip, which serves to further separate him from his peers. When he goes back to NERV, it appears an empty shell of the bustling bastion of technological advancement it once was; symbolically, this is how he views this new world, hallow and alienating. Kaworu is the one thing Shinji can take comfort in (much like the viewer), and that’s taken away from him. It’s all there, but none of it works. The characters aren’t believable, and the desolated NERV is so uninspired that any attempts at making allusions are instantly drowned out.

The worst part about this whole thing though, is probably how it indirectly makes the first two Rebuild films look worse. Evangelion is a slow build, slowly revealing the intricacies of the universe and character implications over extended scenes and circumstances. Upon viewing 1.11 and 2.22, these aspects were not yet touched upon, but I had always assumed Rebuild would get to that. But with 3.33, it seems that this incarnation has no interest in actual development, and would rather parade around with its giant airships, girls in skin-tight suits, and empty story contrivances. The movie ends up feeling like the dismissive description of Evangelion from someone with only a tertiary understating of what the series is about.

eva333_rei.png (1920×812)

And just to make things clear, it’s not the fact that the story is deviating from the original that’s causing the problems. Look at Evangelion 2.22: there’s a wealth of smart alterations that are for the better. In a way, I prefer that Rebuild is making changes, because as I’ve said, we still have Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s just that the changes present do nothing but set everything back.

Evangelion: 3.33 You can (Not) Redo can suck eggs.

But seriously, not only does this entry tarnish the other two, but it makes me question the entirety of the rebuild remake. If this is any indication of what’s to follow in the final movie, then I’m not sure what to expect anymore. It’s possible that we could see a turnaround that justifies the decisions made in the first three, though given the direction of 3.33, it seems unlikely. I honestly think the many factors limiting the original Evangelion is what made it the masterpiece it is, because taking them away seems to have turned it into something that is certainly well-produced, but lacks a certain soul, and is far less novel.

As it stands, Evangelion: 3.33 You can (Not) Redo is (not) worth your time, is (not) a worthy follow-up, and does (not) at all leave me excited for Evangelion: Final.

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