A review requested by Bryce Wilson, with thanks for his multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It is not enough to begin at the beginning. We have to go before the beginning, to 1995, when the 26 episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion started to air on Japanese television. Telling the story of how skyscraper-sized humanoid biological robots called "Evas", piloted by emotionally damaged teenagers, fought off the onslaught of huge trans-dimension or extra-terrestrial or Christ knows what kind of creatures called "Angels", the show was an enormous hit. It was also a costly show, and one that took a turn near the end from subtly exploring emotional trauma to openly depicting creator Anno Hideaki's battle with depression. For these reasons, the last two episodes ended up in a place infinitely different than anyone might reasonably have expected it to end based on at least the first half of the show's run. And there were riots, literal actual riots with outraged fans defacing the building that housed Gainax, the studio which produced the series. Two years later, Anno responded to his baffled and enraged fanbase by remaking the last two episodes as the theatrical feature The End of Evangelion, and in the process doing basically nothing to actually provide them with more clarity or closure.

But all this notwithstanding, the show was immediately entrenched in the hallowed annals of anime as one of the series you absolutely, no possible way around it, had to see if you cared about the medium at all, in Japan or anyplace else that the country's characteristic animation had made inroads. And five years after his second series finale, Anno was able to begin capitalising on the multinational enthusiasm for his signature project by planning an ambitious new retelling of the whole series. Collectively titled Rebuild of Evangelion in English, the initial scheme as I understand it (which was altered) was for three theatrical movies to largely re-tell the series, with a fourth movie expanding into a whole new ending, with all-new big-budget animation that would flesh out the world, the characters, and the tech, with more detailed, lusher visuals. It took another five years for the first of these to come, and eight years later, the fourth film still hasn't been completed, though it has already gone far astray from a simple "remake the show" storytelling mentality, and it's a pretty simple and even necessary thing to regard Rebuild of Evangelion as its own self-contained standalone narrative.

So with all that explanation out of the way, let's turn to the first of the three extant films, called... I lied, more exposition. The first movie exists in three versions, distinguished in English only by a number, and not distinguished in Japanese at all, that I can tell. First was the 98-minute theatrical cut from 2007, Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone. A film of the same length, with some re-timed color and other little tweaks, was released theatrically in Japan and on DVD worldwide as Evangelion 1.01, with the same subtitle. And then a subsequent DVD expanded the running time to 101 minutes, and re-titled the film once more, Evangelion 1.11. For the record, this review is based on 1.01, which I gather is the worst way to have gone about it.

But let's sweep all of that bureaucratic nastiness under the rug, and actually talk about the film, eh? Because when we get right down to it, You Are (Not) Alone is a pretty delightful piece of contemplative science fiction. It begins in the best way possible for something that intends to be heady and, in its private way, "difficult": it simply drops us into a world that looks sick and ruined, with water the color of old blood and bedraggled foliage. And having set up that world in a series of wonderfully bleak establishing shot, it drops into a plot that started shortly before we got there, and really doesn't slow down enough for us to catch up. We can pick up what we need, but it's not till the midway point or so that there's anything like the usual cut-and-dried-exposition. By which point, in theory, we're so taken in by the characters and the unpredictable rhythm of their lives, the actual details of what's going on are at least somewhat beside the point. I gather that this has offended many, including fans of the series who consider it to be unduly rushed (and it sure as hell isn't slow). But the headlong pitch into a crazed world seems exactly right to me, and I find its ragged pace to be electrifying in its own right, different than series but not inherently better or worse - it's clearer and more urgent, but less organic in character-building.

The primary arena of the action is NERV headquarters, a bunker deep below the shiny, metallic, futuristic city of Tokyo-3. NERV is the UN's military response to the Angels, of which the fourth has just made its presence felt, endangering much of the city, but in particular the life of 14-year-old Ikari Shinji (Ogata Megumi), on his way to NERV at the order of his distant, dictatorial father Gendo (Tachiki Fumihiko), leader of NERV. He's found and rescued by Lt. Col. Katsuragi Misato (Mitsuishi Kotono), who immediately latches onto him like a big sister, and helps him find his footing as he trains to be the pilot of one of the Eva-01, though he has to be guilted into it. It's only when seeing a girl his age, Ayanami Rei (Hayashibara Megumi), badly damaged from her own recent battle against the fourth angel in the prototype Eva-00, that he agrees to shoulder the responsibility.

The English subtitle of You Are (Not) Alone - chosen by the filmmakers, so it counts - speaks to its primary, almost overriding focus: this is not at all a movie about giant robots destroying giant inexplicable, almost indescribable things (the four Angels to crop up in the movie all look completely different from each other, and the sixth is defined by its absence of a stable form), which is at best its second-highest priority. Its third is on Christian imagery and overtones of the Biblical Apocalypse, which is transformed into something intriguingly weird as filtered through the perspective of a non-Christian culture (the use of Christianity in anime is something that I find endlessly fascinating, and about which I have absolutely no concrete knowledge). At times the use of Christian elements feels like Anno just pulled terms out of a grab bag without reference to what they mean (which American filmmakers do, like all the damn time, so I can't say that I actually have any problem with it), and so we have things like a command center named Central Dogma (also a term from biology, which doesn't make any more sense) and huge cross-shaped explosions when the Angels die.

The first priority, though, is depression. A crippling, low-down depression that makes it virtually impossible to function. Shinji, as we learn throughout the movie, is almost incapable of feeling anything, and his motivations for his actions are almost exclusively limited to the single desperate hope that his father will offer him a word of praise. Meanwhile, he's so confused and disoriented by the kindness shown to him by Misato, it makes him feel even worse than he did to begin with. The action sequences in the film are as much a symbolic representation of how he comes to a better understanding of the people around him, as they are spectacle. They're still some kind of spectacle, mind you, and frankly very good at it: the battle with the sixth Angel is an unusually impressive example of fluid CGI interacting with traditional animation, and it's as tense a pure action scene as I can think of in animation (which, honestly, isn't a very competitive race), while being tremendously imaginative in its use of the medium to add unpredictability to the villain.

The best thing about You Are (Not) Alone is the way it marries its personalities - sci-fi action and blunt, raw character study (it is, scene-for-scene, far more intense in its study of Shinji's depression than the series was at the equivalent point) - without it feeling at all unnatural for them to exist in the same space. And it does it in a setting that, for all its grim trappings, is genuinely fun: the characters aren't quite as complex as in the show, but they're generally livelier, the music gives a great deal of kinetic energy to even the most sedate moments, and the whole thing is utterly beautiful. The worst I can say about it is that the character animation can tend to be unusually limited, even for anime, but the backgrounds and use of color are so strong that there's never a case when the eye isn't busy anyway.

The sneaky thing about the movie, though, is that it doesn't end. It has a complete arc: Shinji's relationship to the people in his life evolves along a natural, comfortable line, and the final scenes round off the shape of the plot neatly enough that it feels like a structurally sound story. But there are almost nothing but loose ends, and the film adds more of them the closer it gets to the ending. It's easy for a movie to feel internally satisfying when it can kick of all of its most difficult elements to resolve down the road to its sequels, and while You Are (Not) Alone is absolutely promising as the first movie in a series, it signs far too many IOUs to pretend that it's a great stand-alone movie in and of itself.

Reviews in this series
Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (Anno et al, 2007)
Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Anno et al, 2009)
Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo (Anno et al, 2012)