This review features some minor spoilers for the film.
Twenty-six years ago a mecha anime television series began airing, eventually leaving a significant impact on Japanese pop culture, specifically anime at a time when the industry was in a slump period. With all its critical acclaim as well as controversy, Neon Genesis Evangelion is arguably the most important anime of the 1990s, imposing new standards for the animated serial. As a franchise that has gone through numerous incarnations, whether through manga or a set of movies, Evangelion seems to get continually reintroduced to new generations, especially since the original show began airing on Netflix in 2019.
The Rebuild of Evangelion series which began in 2007 is a tetralogy of films that initially raised curiosity towards the Eva fandom. Unlike what George Lucas did with the Special Editions of his original Star Wars trilogy, creator Hideaki Anno essentially retold his original story with these films that went through a new direction in terms of character arcs and setting. As much as Evangelion is about children destined to pilot giant bio-machines in combat against beings called “Angels”, the franchise is rooted in its creator going through depression.
After 2012’s Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, development for the final instalment went on hold with Anno becoming depressed, and through his recovery he would go on to other projects such as co-directing 2015’s Shin Godzilla. Whilst we await to see what Anno does with Shin Ultraman and Shin Kamer Rider, was the decade-long wait for what is supposed to the final Evangelion movie worth it?
Set after the events of the third film, Thrice Upon a Time sees the three Eva pilots Shinji Ikari, Asuka Shikinami Langley and Rei Ayanami walking across the remains of Tokyo-3. Interacting with survivors and living peacefully after the worldwide cataclysm that is the Third Impact, Shinji is still feeling despondent after losing Kaworu Nagisa. Meanwhile, the WILLE organization prepares for one last battle against NERV, who are preparing to launch the Human Instrumentality Project that will mark the end of every last human soul on Earth.
By this point if you’re not well-versed in the lore of Evangelion so much of this film will go over your head. As technically impressive as the various forms of giant machinery are, leaning into outlandish science-fiction, the world-building throughout all of Evangelion has always been heavy-handed, especially when mixing religious ideas and even David Lynch-like surrealism. As crazy as the action is, it looks fantastic with a number of set-pieces from the numerous Evas skydiving, to a climax that is both personal and mind-bending, all of which is achieved through a stunning mix of 2D and 3D animation.
However, what is more impressive than the spectacle is how it tells a finale that is not only in relation to the previous movies but the franchise as a whole. Considering the polarizing reaction towards the third film, which was itself a troubled production as well as a psychological meditation on the characters that gave out more questions than answers, it is surprising how this dense film is able to wrap things up and still present new elements. From the sudden return of supporting characters to the final confrontation between son and father, it is ultimately about learning to grow up, given Shinji’s own struggle of what it means to be an adult, seeing both the good and bad from others in his life.
Given the retooling of familiar ideas and imagery from the series, this film certainly gives an alternative outcome. Given how dark the original series and especially 1997’s The End of Evangelion were, the Rebuild series seems to be aiming at a more hopeful goal, despite the dark points along the way which again seem to reflect on the director’s depression. In fact the film’s conclusion seems more reflective of Neon Genesis’s controversial ending and no doubt the fandom will be divided over the final minutes, but what it conveys is a positive message about the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The last line spoken in the trailer for Thrice Upon a Time is Shinji saying “Goodbye, all Evangelions”, which feels appropriate for those who have grown up with the flawed but fascinating humanity depicted in this twenty-six-year-old property.
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