Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

(Yes, This Week In Tickets is late this week. It's been crazy)

I missed this at Fantasia, figuring I'd be able to see it at the Brattle. When I finally did see it, I had a moment of "whew, good thing you made better use of your time in Montreal"... Then realized I'd used it to see Samurai Princess. No-win, although I think Evangelion 1.0 is better. And maybe if I'd seen it at the festival, it would have been in Japanese; that would likely have been better.

It was sort of an interesting night at the movies, though - I salute the New England Fan Experience folks who saw a chance to promote the anime/kaiju aspect of their upcoming convention and did a fine job. It's the sort of thing that the sci-fi marathon (for example) does not do well at all.

Like that event, though, the audience was kind of a mixed bag - most were excited fans, but a guy somewhere to my right would. not. Shut. Up! It also felt like a record in terms of the number of people going to and from the lobby mid-movie, withe more checking cell phones than usual. That half-confirms a theory I have about how the moviegoing experience is being damaged by home theater - this is the sort of thing that people are used to watching at home, and as such they bring their living room behavior with them into the theater.

Another theory I have is that this movie was really made for fans of the franchise, and I don't qualify there - my one experience with it is having the first issue of Viz's English translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion pushed into my hands by the fine folks at Portland's Phantom Kitty Comics, who were very excited about both Evangelion coming to America and the fact that it was being published right-to-left, nearly unheard of at the time. I just pulled that issue out of my longbox, and it amuses me - both in how close it is to the opening minutes of the movie and how utterly strange it seems that a mere eleven or so years ago, Japanese comics were not only a rare sight in the U.S., but those who did publish them did so in pamphlets the size of America comics. Neon Genesis Evangelion #1 cost me the then-princely sum of $3.25 for 40 pages - I believe most U.S. comics were around $1.99 for 24 pages. Perhaps a fair deal compared to Marvel/DC at the time, but consider - if Viz had been publishing the 18-volume Monster back then, rather than costing $180 over three years, it would have run me about $300 over seven and a half years!

Thank goodness those days are in the rear-view mirror.

Evangerion shin gekijôban: Jo (Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2009 at the Brttle Theatre (Special Engagement/Premiere)

Though Evangelion 1.0's built-in fanbase in the English-speaking world isn't as large as those of home-grown franchises, they are around and dedicated. They seemed to greatly enjoy the first of four new movies adapting the saga, and why shouldn't they? The movie is made for them, a fresh coat of paint on something they already love. I've got no quarrel with their enjoying it, but I must say: It does not necessarily play well for those of us with little or no prior affection for the material.

The story, as near as I can piece it together, is that Earth is under attack by alien forces, including gigantic, mysterious "angels". Conventional military defenses don't work, so the people of Japan and the world are putting their trust in NERV, a highly-funded organization that aims to fight the angels with something their own size, skyscraper-sized battlesuits operated by teenagers. Shinji Akari has just arrived in Tokyo-III to be reunited with his father, but Gendou Akari is the cold scientist at the head of NERV, and his only concern with Shinji is to have him pilot Eva 1. What Shinji doesn't know is that Gendou is part of a secret cabal that knows much more about the invasion than they are letting on, and has greater plans.

This all sounds pretty good, and in some areas the execution is excellent. The movie throws a number of wonders at the audience, from a city that converts itself into a fortress to a truly massive underground base, to some imaginatively created killing machines. There's great attention to technical detail, and the animation does an exceptional job of making the computer-generated machines and backgrounds have the same feel as the traditionally-drawn characters. It's not hard at all to have a reaction of "that's cool" when the action starts.

The problem, of course, is that everything around the action often seems to be either deeply stupid, so poorly explained as to appear deeply stupid, or so cut down as to seem poorly explained. Why are these war machines that must cost billions of dollars to produce being piloted by what appear to be untrained high-schoolers rather than soldiers? If it's something intrinsic to these kids' biology, why are you sending them to ordinary public schools where they could, say, get beat up just because they're the new kid? Is Col. Katsuragi really going to give Shinji a cheesecake photo of herself so that he can recognize her when she arrives in Tokyo-III? And what the hell is the deal with the newspaper-reading penguin that lives in her apartment, anyway?

Now, I'm willing to allow that some of the dialog that explains this got mangled in the English-language dub that was shown; even in the best of cases, trying to express something in two languages using the same number of syllables is difficult. Even without dubbing-related issues, what's left in and out is often frustrating - some bits seem to be omitted because it's assumed the fans know it, minor characters are given too much appear in order to create a "stupid teenagers in jeopardy" situation, and other parts are apparently there to set up something which will pay off in a future movie. Characterization is odd and sometimes clumsy: Katsuragi goes from flirty/sympathetic comic relief (and fan-service material) to hard-ass superior officer in no time flat, while Shinji and fellow pilot Rei also have peculiar, changeable personalities that fail to make them actually interesting. A large chunk of the second half of the movie is spent on Shinji whining about how the pressure put on him is unfair, and while he's got a point, it's annoying both for the bawling repetition and how it points out the lack of any good reason for the pressure to fall on him. A final scene before the credits roll is meant to set up a cliffhanger, but is so disconnected from the rest of the movie that only fans will have any idea why it's a big deal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will readily point out that the fans around me seemed to like it, and there are things to like: It is technically top-notch, supervising director Hideaki Anno and his two co-directors, Kazuya Tsurumaki and Masayuki, can stage a heck of an action scene. Anno's screenplay, while possibly being severely lacking in some areas, does a fine enough job in building up a potentially complex and well-constructed story that I do find myself interested in potentially revisiting it on video, when I can watch all four planned movies subtitled and judge the story as a whole.

That's years off, though, and other non-fans may not be as forgiving. Evangelion, in its day, was celebrated for elevating what were seen as manga & anime clichés. It may be because of the good work done in previous iterations that this stripped-down and prettied-up version does not seem as impressive as it perhaps should.

Also at EFC.

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