In 2000 the Second Impact occurred, flooding the world and killing nearly half its population. Fifteen years later gigantic beings called Angels have appeared with the apparent intent of finding Lilith, the Second Angel, and thus initiating the Third Impact to finish the job. Lilith is concealed deep under the headquarters of the organization NERV, however, and NERV has developed the one weapon capable of stopping the Angels: biomechanical humanoids called Evangelions, giant mecha which synchronize with specially-chosen youths and can generate their own AT fields, a force field-like defense which makes the Angels mostly invulnerable to conventional weaponry. Shinji Ikari, 14-year-old son of NERV director Gendo Ikari, is one such youth, the so-called Third Child, and has been called to Tokyo-3 for exactly that purpose. Though reluctant to help a father who has never had a relationship with him and nearly overwhelmed by both the burden of responsibility placed on him and the horror of battling the Angels, Shinji assumes his expected role, battling a trio of Angels with the support of the entire NERV staff behind him and, in the last case, with the assistance of the mysterious First Child, Rei Ayanami, in her own Evangelion. Behind the scenes, his father and the even more secretive organization SEELE carry out ulterior motives which seem to have everything to do with the Angels’ onslaught.
Like it or not, respect it or not, the original 1995 Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series is one of the rare anime titles which can legitimately be called a landmark in anime. It took the seminal mecha concept of a boy piloting a giant robot built by his father and redefined what could be done with it, in the process revamping a stagnating genre, introducing influential new production methods, and exposing anime to serious scholarly analysis for the first time. Its rampant use of symbolism (some of which, producer Gainax’s staff later admitted, was used purely for visual effect) and highly subjectively interpretable content, combined with a decided anti-hero at its center, made it one of the most controversial anime titles ever, and it has remained one of the most enduringly popular of all anime franchises; even more than a decade after its last original content, it and its characters still regularly ranked very high in fan polls, and even before the Rebuild of Evangelion project began, its franchise’s revenues could, by some accounts, be measured in the billions of U.S. dollars. Though its popularity seemed to be waning some by late 2007, Japanese fans still crowded theaters to (literally) standing room-only attendance upon the premier of the first of the planned four movies intended to remake and revamp the original series. Given the franchise’s pedigree, it’s only natural that licensor Funimation would prioritize it for Blu-Ray release.
For those familiar with the original series, the first movie directly adapts the first six episodes of the series. Little more than minor tweaks and trimming are apparent until the run-up to the battle with the octahedronal sixth Angel towards the end of the movie, where Misato (Shinji’s handler, for the uninitiated) shows him something important that he did not get exposed to until much later in the TV series. Director Hideaki Anno takes full advantages of the technical advances in animation CG since 1995 to give the sixth Angel’s combat style a fantastic overhaul, but even more significant is the scene which ends the movie, one which makes it clear that these movies are going to at least partly head in new directions. Along the way the movie not only retains but also in some ways improves upon the key elements of the series: the touchy interpersonal dynamics, Shinji’s struggle to find a purpose for himself, and the edge-of-your-seat intensity of the combat scenes.
And it is in that intensity where the movie triumphs most gloriously. One of the most underappreciated of the original series’ strengths, the intensity ratchets up so effectively here that, even if you know precisely what’s coming, it is hard to resist tensing up while watching these high-impact spectacles. No one does better than Anno when it comes to convincingly placing characters in the midst of hellish blasts, and no mecha title has ever done better at showing how savage mecha fights can be when they get up close and personal. (In fact, the original NGE was an innovator in this regard.) A soundtrack which mixes standbys from the original series with dramatic new pieces is a key contributor here, as is the staging and writing, but ultimately the visuals are the star this time.
Of course, all of the psychological issues that the original series is famous for are still around. Volumes can be (and have been) written about all the baggage Shinji totes around, about how he plays out much more like a typical angst-crippled 14-year-old thrown into an impossible situation than the expected self-collected hero. (How many real 14-year-olds would not freak out under circumstances like Shinji’s?) Rei is still the even more socially maladjusted one, a girl who is clearly not devoid of emotion but has great difficulty expressing it or making a connection with anyone, while Misato is still the sexy mix of looseness and intensity, although in this rendition one gets the sense a bit earlier that she, too, has lingering issues. Not enough has been seen at this point of Gendo Ikari for anyone new to the franchise to get much of a feel for where he is coming from, but this movie serves much more to lay the foundation for the greater story than to actually carry it out.
The visuals were the aspect most in need of an update, for while the original artistry was hardly bad, it is outclassed by the sharper productions of the past few years. This release gives us a chance to see what Anno can do with the story with a full array of CG effects and digital coloring at his disposal, and the result is impressive. Characters retain their distinctively lithe original designs but look a bit more rounded and have a greater sense of depth, the Evas still have the sleek, monstrous look that they are famous for, and blasts and bursts flash on the screen with increased vigor. Minor flaws in quality control do occasionally show through in calmer scenes, and the faithfully-reproduced girl’s school uniform is still one of the most drab designs to be found in any anime series, but all of the upgrades in the visuals will not disappoint returning viewers and should impress newer ones. The animation, too, is better than it ever was in the series, although it still takes the occasional shortcut. It impresses most in the inventive redefinition of the Angels, especially how the third one attacks. Also look for massive amounts of splashing blood (Or is that LCL fluid?) and about the same amount of fan service as the original series saw, including the classic scene where Shinji gets caught off-guard by the appearance of Misato’s pet penguin.
Funimation’s English dub recasts most of the roles, which in some cases is a big improvement (many of the original minor supporting role performances were weak) and in other cases is a disappointment. (John Swasey is adequate as Gendo but does not carry quite the sly tone of Tristan MacAvery’s richer, more iconic original performance.) In still other places the changes made little or no difference; Rei’s subdued voice and speaking patterns are relatively easy to replicate, for instance, and she does not display much emotion through this movie’s content anyway. Funimation did get the irreplaceable Spike Spencer back to play Shinji, however, and along with Allison Keith-Shipp reprising her original role as Misato, they ably anchor the cast in its key performances. While the English script does take some liberties, it does not change things overly much.
The Blu-Ray version brings the expected upgrade in picture quality, but its value varies from scene to scene. It shines when the animation and artistry is at its best and simply more clearly reveals minor flaws when quality control sags. This version does, however, upgrade the sound to Dolby 6.1 True HD on both the English and Japanese language tracks and includes the Extras conspicuously absent from the 1.01 DVD release. Among these are a series of Japanese news alerts about the movie, a promo music video using the “Angel of Doom” theme from the climactic battle scene, and several trailers keyed to either this movie’s closing number “Beautiful World” or “Fly Me to the Moon,” the original TV series’ closer. One of them, though (the first one on the list) is for the second movie, not this one. Also included are two versions of the 15-minute Rebuild of Evangelion creation piece, one set to a variation on the franchise’s baseline theme and another set to a widely-recognizable piece by Joseph-Maurice Ravel. Not an especially meaty set!
If you have not yet gotten the first Evangelion movie and have a Blu-Ray player then this is unquestionably the version you want to get. If you have the 1.01 release then the value of upgrading to this one is questionable unless you have a full set of proper equipment and place a high priority on maximum available video resolution. If you are not familiar with the franchise then this one is certainly worth a look, as it delivers well as both an action-oriented piece and a dramatic psychological study. With the strongest parts of the original series still yet to be adapted and hints about a new character coming into the picture, the best may even still be yet to come.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Big upgrades in artistry, captures all of the psychology and intensity of the original.
− Some minor quality control flaws, story feels just a little rushed in places.