APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EVANGELION: 3.0 + 1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME (2021)

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FEATURING: Voices of , Fumihiko Tachiki, , , Yuriko Yamaguchi; , John Swaney, , , Mary Faber (English dub)

PLOT: Angsty teenage Eva pilot Shinji must cope with his guilt over inadvertently causing the Third Impact, and regroup to face NERV and his own father in a final apocalyptic battle.

Stiill from Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The movie garners significant weird credentials by being only the second anime ever made about emo teenagers piloting giant robots to stave off a psychedelic apocalypse that ends by blasting its protagonist into a surreal purgatory where he wrestles with the nature of reality that’s actually a metaphor for mental illness. In this case, it’s more of a question of what might keep Thrice Upon a Time out of the Apocrypha. The answer there is more difficult, but this alternate take on a story already enshrined in the canon of weird movies does come equipped with one big negative: just to follow the basics—which is a far cry from “understanding” the film—requires you to watch (at a minimum) the three previous movies in the “rebuild series” on top of this 3.5 hour epic.

COMMENTS: Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time concludes a one-of-a-kind epic anime journey with one of the unwieldiest titles ever slapped upon a major release. The “thrice” probably refers to the series’ three different alternate endings—the TV finale, 1997’s End of Evangelion, and this one.

Is this the definitive conclusion to the story, or merely the final one? That will be a matter of taste, but 3.0 + 1.0 boasts some advantages over previous finales. For one thing, it gives more closure to the supporting characters. In previous versions, the story arcs of Eva pilot Asuka and, to some extent, antagonist Gendo were suddenly abandoned to focus on Shinji’s solipsistic hallucinations. Here, these characters play a larger role—Gendo’s motivations are explored in much greater detail—which is, in a conventional narrative sense, more satisfying. The mysterious clone Rei also follows a completely new plotline, resulting in a deeper catharsis than before, when she functioned mostly as a plot device.

Structurally, 3.0 + 1.0 is an odd duck, as Anno tries to keep his many balls juggling with one hand while tying up loose ends with the other. It starts with a four-minute rebuild recap, too brief to orient newcomers but effectively refreshing the memories of series’ followers who waited nine years between the release of 3.0 and 3.0 + 1.0. This is followed by an extended action scene where the renegades of the Wille organization, assisted by Eva pilot Mari, liberate Paris from NERV; it’s superfluous, but supplies an opportunity for an big action sequence up front, and helps to re-establish the good guys and the bad guys.

After this prologue, the movie unexpectedly turns into a post-apocalyptic drama as Shinji, Asuka and Rei shelter in a small village of survivors of the Third Impact. This hour-long, character-based story detour is unexpected, but not as disruptive as you might think. It’s a space for Anno to enact the major change to his story. Shinji still suffers from catatonic melancholia, as in previous iterations; but here, he works his way through his guilt and grief and recovers, resolving to fight against NERV by the conclusion of his stay. This revision allows him to be a vital and active participant heading into the final showdown, which in previous installments had been about the sullen teen working through the nadir of his depression. Since the protagonist’s self-loathing whininess had always been one of the major obstacles to enjoying Evangelion, this alteration will be viewed as an improvement for many. (The out-of-story explanation for this change is that Anno, who recovered from his own bout of depression decades ago, no longer identifies with the whiny, paralytic Shinji, and in fact now has more in common with Gendo, who is a far more sympathetic villain this time around.)

The last hour and a half of the movie gives fans what they came for: robot/spaceship battles, bizarre sciento-mystical musings, and eye-popping visual fireworks (and even a touch of fanservice). The Wille crew, with the three surviving Eva pilots, plunge into the bowels of NERV headquarters in a hellish descent into a bottomless red burrow, with Evas fighting off hordes of enemies as they fall. As always, Anno’s dialogue is thick with poetic-sounding nonsense. “Gendo Ikari–you used the Key of Nebuchadnezzar and willingly abandoned your humanity?,” Maya accuses. “I merely appended upon my body information that transcends the Logos of our realm,” answers the villain in a robotic deadpan. Half the dialogue here sounds like Philip K. Dick was hired to do a rewrite of the Revelation of St. John. The final action sequences are pure visual mayhem, decidedly NSFE (not safe for epileptics), with cascading pixels in a constant chaotic dance. Every space within the NERV netherworld is constantly exploding into some kind of cosmic kaleidoscope, mandala, or fractal geometry. The film does end up exploring the same surreal psychological spaces as End of Evangelion, but spends less time there, and more in a more conventional conflict between Shinjii and his father (who at one point face off in mirror-image Evas battling across imaginary landscapes).

Overall, I preferred the way End of Evangelion launched straight into the crazy from the get-go, and the peculiarity of its fascination with the unappealing Shinji. But I didn’t feel cheated by this version, and I can see how many fans might find this to be the more satisfying—and indeed ultimate—conclusion to the tale. Not for newcomers, since a four-movie commitment is almost a necessity, but for anyone who’s dipped their toes into Anno’s deranged opus before, this will rate as must see anime. It’s the true End of Evangelion, and the end of an era.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anno opens the film with crowd-pleasing action, delves into the psychological stuff, shifts to a skirmish set beyond all planes of reality and finds yet another psychological plane beyond those planes, and it’s all bedecked by wondrously detailed and tirelessly creative psychedelic imagery. Theoretically, one could ignore the almost impenetrably dense plotting and objectively watch the film for its visuals alone, from the elegant, Ghibli-esque simplicity of its Tokyo-3 scenes to the second half’s parade of hallucinatory sequences, each one crazier than the previous.”–John Serba, Decider (contemporaneous)

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