Well, it's finally here: after a little over three years in release limbo, Evangelion 3.33: You Can (not) Redo is finally on bluray in the US. Let's not waste any time: the odds that you've heard this movie sucks are astronomical, and if we're all being perfectly honest with one another, it isn't at all difficult to see why.
A little context first: Evangelion 2.22 was, in many ways, exactly what fans of the franchise wanted. It had an incredibly satisfying emotional buildup, plenty of fun lore and story twists to chew on AND all of the hallmarks of Evangelion were represented in fine form. Expectations could not have been higher for this film; downplaying how much people loved Evangelion 2.22 and how much Khara knocked it out of the park then would be ignoring important context.
The chief frustration with Evangelion 3.33 is this: it's unevenly composed, so it functions as two films that don't really please anyone completely. There's the first 40 minutes, which deal almost exclusively with the arcane, complicated sci-fi window dressing that surrounds Evangelion's real narrative. There are plenty of fans for whom this is the entire point and the entire pleasure of Evangelion, but all of this stuff is basically abandoned about a third of the way through the film. What is here feels like fanfiction, inorganic interactions and situations involving characters we know and love, behaving in a way that doesn't feel true to themselves. It's a series of contrivances cooked up in order to get story players into specific positions rather than story development that feels natural (this is what “feels like fanfiction” is often describing). Given how the story goes, what happens in the first 40 minutes is almost irrelevant by the end – and there aren't enough answers in there to give you a clear picture of exactly who's doing what, in service of who, and why. The screenplay simply isn't structured in a way that makes things clear; it isn't confusing, per se, but at the end of this film there are still thousands more questions than there are answers and not a whole lot has changed outside of Shinji's head, even if we've been handed a new status quo. A grand narrative with this many moving parts is going to suffer in the coherency department when you're telling it using this slapdash episodic style that places impressionist vignettes of emotional development haphazardly next to scenes of profoundly clandestine plot information. If 2.22 felt like relatively organized chaos in the story department (which is a feat given Evangelion's storytelling history), 3.33 is a big half-finished flowchart where a third of the lines end in question marks and what's filled in doesn't quite fit together. It's easy to see how this would be a major letdown after three years of waiting, given there isn't even a scrap of new information about the conclusion's release and this film came out in 2012.
If we boil it down, though, it's pretty simple to figure out why this film feels empty. Evangelion 2.22 ends with Shinji Ikari being manipulated into triggering an extinction event, the world gets partway through this process but doesn't get far enough along to actually end the film series, and then Gendo's plan continues – see you next time! This is the same thing that happens in Evangelion 3.33. We really aren't that much further along in the story, even after all that – except for two crucial details. There are two things this film does that show us where Anno's emotional narrative is going, and those two things make the last hour of this film sing with the same passion, the same deeply-felt painful self-examination that made Evangelion mean so much to so many people in the first place.
Those two little details are buried inside the other film Evangelion 3.33 presents, the one that doesn't start until yet another Rei Ayanami shows up to bust Shinji out of Misato's Evangelion-powered fleet and deliver him back to his father, whose presence signals that the story is about to get started. First, though, it's important to discuss where we were at before this film started.
In the second film, Shinji's emotional journey is a corruption of the basic throughline of the original TV series and, to an extent, End of Evangelion – rather than finding the inner strength to trust himself, Shinji is deceived into believing he's self-actualized. He believes he's broken free of his father's control and is righteously saving his friend, which is the unequivocal Right Thing To Do in his depressed little teenage brain. The series really could've gone anywhere after that, but the message was clear: Shinji Ikari still hates himself. He still doesn't trust himself, or his own judgment. He's still being controlled by his parents, by any adult, any authority figure that touches him. There is no folding chair, there is no lunar surface. Anyone who makes Shinji feel loved can use him like a tool – Shinji's self-hatred enables that. “Being honest with myself will only make me more miserable” Shinji says in 2.22, signaling to us how deep the depression goes. It's a self-defeating cycle of narcissism, the belief that not only is the world out to get you, but that you absolutely deserve it. The language this series uses to describe those feelings is above and beyond any other in my experience. Evangelion understands self-hatred on a profound level, and it's clear these Rebuild films are a fresh look at it from an older, wiser and more enlightened perspective. Self-hatred has always been the real villain of Evangelion; that's what Shinji is trying to defeat. That's the point.
Pictured: Evangelion 3.33's visual representation of the only thing many severely depressed people living with self-hatred believe will give them any kind of strength at all. Pretty tough to turn down.
Evangelion 3.33 puts Shinji through yet another test, as if the last one wasn't tough enough; this time he's taken in by Kaworu Nagisa, a grey-haired, gentle young man who seduces Shinji using the most efficient tool: warmth, closeness and love. Their budding relationship is the highlight of this film; the gimmick from ‘Both Of You, Dance Like You Want To Win!’, where Shinji and Asuka must synchronize their actions and work in tandem to defeat the enemy is repurposed beautifully to illustrate how Kaworu's tendrils get all up inside Shinji's mental business. We're never meant to see Kaworu as a villain, even if he unwittingly is one – his influence is meant to show us that Shinji is still a long, long way from self-acceptance. By all accounts, Kaworu is a loving, considerate partner who cares deeply for Shinji's happiness, refuses to leave him behind and even takes Shinji's terrible burden as his own. Yet in those heartbreaking final moments, Shinji has misinterpreted Kaworu's love not as evidence that he himself is worth loving and thus his motivation can be entirely his own, but that Kaworu's love itself makes him worthwhile and thus he can beat his chest and shout “I” at the heart of the world, having found the strength he needs to do it. But he's still just fooling himself. He's still making catastrophic decisions motivated by self-hatred – Kaworu's love doesn't make him a complete person.
Your girlfriend isn't going to fill the existential hole inside you. Sorry.
This is one of those very simple things people like to tell themselves they already believe and understand, but it's something that only comes after doing the intense and difficult work of real self-discovery. The idea that another person's love and acceptance absolutely can not and will never complete you as a person is a heartbreaking defeat for someone whose self-hatred has convinced them that this is the solution. It's being illustrated in this film in a way I've never seen before, which is the finest hallmark Evangelion has – the ability to visually articulate powerful, damaging and painful emotions and experiences in ways that feel like they're speaking to the oldest part of your soul. It is in these moments that Evangelion 3.33 becomes, in my mind, just as vital as the rest of these films. I feel like I understand why Anno thought this was an important enough revelation to build an entire film around.
It helps, of course, that the ragged and screaming blood-soaked sex apocalypse of Evangelion honors the way all that mind-melting self-flagellation feels when you're a teenager operating in a constant state of heightened emotion. I've always loved the way the Rebuild films look, and this is no exception – there are moments of nice, subtle character animation (nobody will need to tell you to watch Shinji and Kaworu's piano ballad closely – it is as gorgeous a piece of animation as anything this series has achieved before) and yet more of the incredible abstract surrealism we've come to expect from this series. Nothing yet has managed to really top what happens in the final act of End of Evangelion, which remains a high water mark for the kind of destructive, gut-rending nightmare worlds Evangelion's Impact imagery trades in, but there's still a visceral feast for the eyes here. Even with all the bizarre, upsetting stuff we've seen so far, I'm hoping they're saving the truly out-there ideas for the final film.
Funimation's bluray release has had a bumpy road to retail, but it doesn't appear particularly compromised in any significant way. It comes in a sparkling slipcover with a full-color booklet of model sheets and character designs, along with some trivia. The bluray itself looks fine to my eyes, with the expected smattering of trailers and little else. I made sure to rewatch the sections of this film where big chunks of exposition about the complicated surface story of Evangelion are unveiled, and the dub script is staying slavishly accurate, using a translation that we know has been approved by Khara directly. The dub itself is perfectly serviceable, with the series’ longtime actors reprising their roles. I've always wanted an Evangelion dub that tried a little harder to match the cadence and delivery of the Japanese performances – in English, it's always felt too heightened and cartoonish to me. This is entirely a personal preference, though, and this dub seems perfectly in line with Funimation's previous work on the series. Whatever chaos delayed the film for so long, there's little evidence of it on the disc. It'll look great next to the other two on your shelf.
Evangelion 3.33 is an incredibly flawed work – the entire first 40 minutes feel like they're from another, less interesting film, and we aren't much further along in the story than we were at the end of the last one. You don't walk away from this one with any new answers about what in the world all of this is building to, only knowing that Shinji Ikari has gone through crucial and painful emotional growth – and we don't even get to see how it's changed him. But there's an important difference at the very end of this movie that gives me a tremendous amount of hope for the final installment.
WARNING: Spoilers for the final scene.
At the very end of this film, Shinji has survived something that breaks a whole lot of people who struggle with severe depression: a codependent relationship. He's closer to the end of his journey to self-awareness than he's ever been before; Neon Genesis Evangelion and even End of Evangelion didn't put Shinji through an emotional trial like this (Kaworu's involvement in the TV series was like a Tinder match compared to their relationship in this film; I'm pretty sure there's a deleted scene where Kaworu has to go engagement ring shopping) and in the very final scene, the new status quo we're handed is simple but has gigantic implications for the series. For the first time, Shinji, Asuka and Rei are completely on their own. They even drop Shinji's talisman for his father, the cassette player he uses to fill his ears and drown out the world, leaving it behind. Asuka announces that nobody can track them – they are, effectively, lost. The final shot shows our three damaged heroes for the first time without the shackles of their elders, no longer being directly manipulated into fighting someone else's battles; they step out into the yawning chaos before them, free at last for now, not knowing where they're going. How they survive in the world on their own, the decisions they make, how close Shinji comes to self-awareness… I cannot wait to find out how Anno is going to answer those questions.
Evangelion will stop being interesting the very second they stop taking risks like this, when they start just regurgitating the stuff you've already seen in the same way you've seen it before. This is a deeply flawed film with serious execution problems that, in a way, rhyme with the emotional territory it's exploring: big, messy adolescent emotions that splatter all over the place and hurt people. That's not an excuse for how poorly-constructed Evangelion 3.33 is, but it absolutely makes it a deeply personal and emotionally powerful work of art that deserves to be experienced, criticized, admired, ripped apart and argued over like every other thought-provoking piece of artistic expression. I found that in spite of this film's problems, it still
gave me what I want most from this series in a way that actually challenged me. I can't deny that.