Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time
It's been 14 years since the first Rebuild of Evangelion film hit Japanese theaters—and a staggering 9 years since the previous film, You Can (Not) Redo was released. As the final film of the four-part alternate retelling of one of the most pivotal and beloved anime of all time, it's hard to understate the hype surrounding Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time both inside and outside of Japan. While this review will be spoiler-free (beyond explaining the basic setup for the film), if you're wanting to go in as blind as possible, here's your one-sentence review from one diehard Evangelion fan to another: If this is the final Evangelion anime ever produced, I am content with how it ended.
The first quarter of the 2-hour and 35-minute film is spent dealing with the fallout of the previous film. Shinji is just this side of catatonic: with his best friend killed violently before his eyes and everything he thought he knew turned upside down, it's no wonder he thinks that his every action just makes things worse.
Yet while Shinji is dealing with his most recent trauma, Rei begins to learn about life outside of Nerv. With a sense of child-like wonder, she starts the journey to becoming her own person—not just another “Rei Ayanami.”
In contrast to the other two, Asuka's story is much more nuanced and exists mainly in the background. Through visual storytelling, it becomes clear that a lot has happened to her in the last 14 years. She already knows her place in the world—even if she dreams of a different one.
In broader strokes, this first part of the movie is about the three Eva pilots learning what life can be like when your existence isn't defined by being an Eva pilot—and in doing so, reaffirming why it's important that they pilot anyway.
While all this characterization is going on, we also get a lot of the explanation left out in the previous film: namely what exactly happened over the past 14 years, what the state of the world currently is, and what the goals of Wille and Nerv are. It's refreshing to finally get a clearer picture of the events of You Can (Not) Redo, even if it took a nine-year wait.
But perhaps the most important element of the film is its additional focus on Gendo. As the main villain of the original, he was rather one-note in his motivations. Thrice Upon a Time makes great strides in expanding and developing his character. Not only do we get a deeper look at his motivations, we learn why he is the way he is: what kind of life and personality are needed to make him do all the horrible things he's done. And even if you still hate Gendo by the end of this exploration, it's hard not to empathize with him.
The film also does a great job of playing on viewer expectations. Because the Rebuild films are based on the original TV show and follow the same characters, it's natural to assume that things revealed in one remain true in the other. However, as one big twist in the film reveals to great success, this is not necessarily the case.
On both a narrative and a thematic level, Thrice Upon a Time is most deeply connected with the 1997 film The End of Evangelion. However, the messages of the two films couldn't be more different. The End of Evangelion (and the TV series before it) is mostly concerned with the hedgehog's dilemma: the closer your relationship with others, the more they can hurt you. In the end, that film concludes that it is better to exist alongside people you cherish, despite the emotional pain that you will undoubtedly go through.
Thrice Upon a Time, on the other hand, throws the entire dilemma out the window. It posits that you shouldn't focus on what you seek to gain from a relationship, but rather what you give to it. If you selflessly love those you care about—do what you can to make them happy with nothing expected in return—then you'll never be alone. You will be able to find your own happiness with those who do the same for you. It's a far more optimistic lesson, and one that rings true in the film's final moments.
However, as strong as the film is overall, it isn't without its drawbacks. Mari draws the short stick when it comes to character development for the pilots—which is odd considering how vital she is to the overall story and its resolution. While nearly every action scene in the film centers around her, she gets no real character arc and the specifics of her past remain shrouded in mystery.
There are also problems with the world-building. Nerv, as we see it in this film and the previous one, is comprised solely of two humans and a handful of Rei clones. Yet, they are able to field everything from flying battleships to hundreds of Evangelions. Who designed and programmed these new units? How are they created? How are the raw materials obtained? The logistics behind what we see on screen must be staggering in their complexity, to the point of stretching the realm of believability.
Then there's the technology used by both sides, which might as well be magic in this film. The sci-fi rules established in previous films are largely ignored to the point that it's hard to know how much danger our heroes are in. We don't know the limits of what they can do—or what the enemy can do for that matter. This only gets worse thanks to all the new technobabble being thrown around (so much so that those watching the film in theaters are handed a literal list of all the new terms upon entering). As a result, this confusion unnecessarily diminishes the tension in any given scene.
Musically, Thrice Upon a Time is pretty much what you've come to expect from the Rebuild films: some tracks from the original TV series, some new songs to set the mood in key scenes, some repurposed classical music tracks, and a Hikaru Utada song or two to finish things off. Of course, just because it's a predictable collection, that doesn't mean you won't be humming “One More Kiss” for weeks to come.
On the visual side of things, Thrice Upon a Time presents some of the most fluid and dynamic 3D animation I've ever seen, though the transition between 2D and 3D is still noticeable. It also uses some live-action rotoscope to purposefully create an unsettling clash of animation styles, adding a bit of nightmare fuel to the film that will haunt viewers for years to come.
But the biggest issue visually is how chaotic and cluttered the action scenes are. With all the spinning, moving, shaky cams, and uniformly red backgrounds, it can be hard to tell which way is up, much less what's going on. Even the film's establishing shots do little once the surroundings become so surreal we have no baseline to compare them to.
All in all, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time is an excellent mix of new and old. It uses the same building blocks from decades before to create a new story with a more hopeful message. Characters are explored in interesting, dynamic ways and the film ties up the vast majority of loose ends that the previous films have left hanging. And while it does have some weaknesses in its world-building, you're likely to be so caught up in the adventure that you barely notice your first time through, or are willing to overlook them in the face of everything else it does well.
Thrice Upon a Time bills itself as not only the end of the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy but the end of the entire Evangelion franchise. And, if nothing else, it certainly delivers a satisfying conclusion.