Two things are certain about the legacy of Neon Genesis Evangelion. First, the fourteen years or so that have passed since its TV debut have done little, if anything, to diminish the shadow that it casts over the entire anime landscape. Indeed, nearly any anime title that involves giant robots, (young) characters struggling with psychological trauma and alienation, labyrinthine and esoteric conspiracies, and/or apocalyptic scenarios will inevitably be compared to Hideaki Anno’s series and run the risk of being dismissed as Evangelion-lite. (No offense, RahXephon and Argentosoma, but I’m looking in your general direction.)
And second, Gainax — the studio behind Evangelion — has done nearly everything in its power to capitalize on the series as a merchandising bonanza. If you thought Disney’s merchandising efforts were over the top, you ain’t seen nothing yet: Evangelion has spawned numerous video releases and reissues, manga (comic books) series, toys, video games, music releases, apparel, playing cards, lighters, plush figurines, coffee, snack foods, footwear, pachinko parlors, and even iPods.
So suffice to say, when Anno announced his intention to remake Evangelion as a tetralogy of movies with new storylines, new characters, and a completely new ending, there were probably more than a few anime fans and otaku who rolled their eyes and dismissed it as yet one more cash grab. But Evangelion‘s allure and legacy are powerful forces, and its heady brew of teen angst, Freudian psychology, Kabbalah and Judeo-Christian imagery, and awesome robot-smashing action cannot be so easily dismissed (even if it doesn’t always make the most sense on paper).
Evangelion begins fifteen years after the “Second Impact,” a cataclysmic event that destroyed Antarctica, did irreparable damage to Earth’s environment, and wiped out half of humanity. But now, mankind faces an even greater threat: the “Angels,” strange monstrous beings whose existence was foretold by the Dead Sea Scrolls (cue the religious esoterica!) and who seem drawn to Tokyo-3, one of humanity’s last strongholds.
Unfortunately, Earth’s military might is nothing compared to the Angels’ power. Humanity’s only hope lies in the top secret organization Nerv (cue the esoteric conspiracies!) and its EVAs, giant robots (cue the robot-smashing action!) that can only be piloted by young teens (cue the teen angst!) born after the Second Impact. Shinji Ikari, the series’ protagonist, is one such teen. Summoned to Tokyo-3 by his father Gendo — who is Nerv’s commander and who abandoned him at a young age — Shinji is as un-heroic as you can imagine, a weak-willed young man with no self esteem or confidence whatsoever.
Torn between a desire to run from conflict and human contact, and a desperate need for approval and self-identity, Shinji agrees to pilot an EVA the day he arrives at Nerv HQ. And while he can’t remember anything from his dramatic battle with the strange Angel known as Sachiel, it’s quickly apparent that there’s more to this young teen, and his EVA, than previously thought.
It’s difficult to know how much to say about Evangelion. On the one hand, saying too little could easily cause others to dismiss the title as yet another “giant robot vs. monster of the week” title, the kind that permeates your local Best Buy’s anime section with cliché after cliché. But one of the pleasures of watching Evangelion — the series, anyway — is to see just how far down the rabbit hole Anno and co. go, and I certainly don’t want to spoil that. With the new Evangelion tetralogy, Anno seems keenly aware of the dilemma. The so-called “Rebuild of Evangelion” is Anno’s attempt to create a definitive version of the series for a new time and era, one that is primarily focused for drawing new people into the franchise while simultaneously offering something both new and nostalgic for longtime fans.
Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone achieves mixed success in this endeavor. There’s no way to get around the fact that You Are (Not) Alone‘s 100 minutes feels extremely episodic in nature. It’s a streamlined retelling of the original’s first six episodes, and unfortunately, what gets streamlined is that which built up the drama that kept people coming back in the series’ first third or so, during which it’s largely a routine “monster of the week” title. In other words, the characters — i.e., Shinji, Rei, Misato — feel far less developed. Of course, there’s every reason to believe that this will be corrected in the later films, but even so, what makes Evangelion so compelling is its characters’ plights and backstories, and you just don’t get that here beyond some surface-level pouting and father issues.
Things do pick up in the film’s final act with the attack of the Angel called Ramiel, a giant crystalline octahedron intent on drilling straight through the earth to the GeoFront, Nerv’s subterranean headquarters. And the movie’s final scenes imply that the second film, Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, will diverge quite a bit from the original series, and truly shape up to be the original vision sought by Anno.
My feeling is that You Are (Not) Alone is primarily Anno’s attempt to placate the otaku who might otherwise be concerned by the thought of a rebuild; it’s his attempt to show them that the rebuild is not completely doing away with everything they know and love. By starting off with what’s essentially the first six episodes, and introducing few, if any, substantial new elements, You Are (Not) Alone has little to appeal to new viewers unless they already have some level of curiosity to finally check out an anime title that folks have been talking about for years. (But just between you and me, I’m a little skeptical that Anno’s rebuild will draw in too many new viewers: this is still Evangelion we’re talking about here.)
If this all sounds dismissive, let me clarify: I did enjoy the movie. For all of its flaws, it’s still Evangelion. And there are plenty of scenes that are simply awesome and ought to appeal to any otaku worth their salt. The new series is not being done by Gainax, but rather by Studio Khara, a brand new company created just for Evangelion’s rebuild, and their work is astounding. The animation has been significantly cleaned up and CGI is used throughout quite well, from the awe-inspiring transformations of Tokyo-3 to Ramiel’s shapeshifting and devastating attacks. Visually, the movie remains faithful to the original series, it just looks a lot better (especially if you’re watching it on Blu-ray).
And there are classic Evangelion scenes strewn throughout You Are (Not) Alone that brought a smile to my face: the reveal of the GeoFront; Shinji’s first encounter with Pen-Pen; and his first view of the crucified Lilith, the source of human life and the reason behind the Angel’s attacks.
Ultimately, I like You Are (Not) Alone not so much for itself, but for what it represents: a stable (for all its flaws) foundation for a re-imagining of one of the most important anime titles of all time. It’s far too early to tell if Anno’s rebuild will be a success or not. Methinks that the second film — which, from all accounts, is where the deviation from the original series truly begins — will be a bigger indicator of ultimate success. But Evangelion has always been a title that is far greater than the sum of its parts (i.e., religious mysticism, conspiracies, teen melodrama, kick-ass robots), and nothing I saw in You Are (Not) Alone changes that assessment. However, we’ll need to wait several more years in order to see just how much greater this particular incarnation really is.
Note: I had initially planned to post this review in December of 2009 after watching the initial DVD release, Evangelion: 1.01 You Are (Not) Alone. However that release was plagued with several transfer issues (e.g., the night scenes in the final act were well nigh unwatchable). Those issues have been fixed with Evangelion: 1.11. Three minutes of footage have also been added, which doesn’t sound like much, but Evangelion: 1.11 does actually feel a little smoother and less episodic than its predecessor. If you’ve already seen Evangelion: 1.01, then I do recommend watching Evangelion: 1.11. In some ways, it really feels like a completely different, and better, movie, and not merely a shameless cash-grab by the producers.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on March 16, 2010.