Saturday, March 05, 2011

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance

I'm half-tempted to tell the same stories I did back when I saw the first "Rebuild of Evangelion" movie back in August of 2009; I did, in fact, go into this movie with more than a little trepidation; the first was not that great and my memories of that screening and Gantz served as a reminder that, as much as I love Japanese sci-fi and animation, my fellow fans can make for a pretty crappy movie audience. Not always, but when you're used to seeing something in the comfort of your own living room (or on a computer screen in your bedroom), you sometimes take your at-home behavior to the movies.

It was better, this time around - although there was some laughter at bad English-language dialogue in the beginning, the audience mostly behaved. Still more cell-phone checking than usual and one guy in the exact center of the audience needed to hit the restroom twice (seriously, know your bladder and sit on the aisle if that's going to be an issue), but better. It was at least a fairly packed house; niche films like this may not be a great idea for a full week's booking, but two days at the Brattle will net some decent-sized audiences - and more importantly from a theater's point of view, those guys will spend a little at the concession stand; the show started about ten minutes late because there was a line up the stairs for popcorn.

One thing I do worry about with this series (aside from writer/producer/supervising director Hideaki Anno tending more toward his worse instincts than his best ones) is how, for what is essentially a serial, there are some pretty big gaps between episodes. Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone had a 2007 release in Japan; it made it to North America in 2009, roughly the same time this movie hit Japan (I could have seen it at Fantasia last year, if I'd arrived in Montreal a bit earlier; according to my schedule, seeing Mandrill opening night would have left Evangelion's only showing open). Though there's a tease for "Evangelion Q" at the end of this movie, IMDB has that not opening until 2012. Those aren't unusual gaps between films and sequels, especially considering how labor-intensive animation in general is, especially cel-based animation that looks this good, but for a series that is this tightly-connected and makes few concessions to the casual moviegoer, two or three years seems like a long time to go between episodes.

Evangerion shin gekij├┤ban: Ha (Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2011 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement/Premiere; digital projection)

I didn't think much of the first "Rebuild of Evangelion" movie when I saw it a couple years ago, but there might have been mitigating circumstances - the version I saw was dubbed, and it was the first of a projected four-film series, so it had a lot of set-up to do. This second film, You Can (Not) Advance runs somewhat smoother, because it trusts the audience a bit more. Whether it's trusting that the audience is made up of fans who already know what's going on or trusting that they can figure it out, and whether that trust is well-placed, is a trickier question.

As the film opens, humanity is still using giant "Evangelion" devices to defend the earth from attacking aliens, including the leviathans referred to as "Angels" which seem particularly intent on reaching material stored in a base underneath Tokyo-3. The Evas are piloted by teenagers, notably Rei Ayanami (voice of Megumi Hayashibara), the shy pilot of Eva-00, and Shinji Ikari (voice of Megumi Ogata), pilot of Eva-01 and son of Gendo Ikari (voice of Fumihiko Tachiki), the scientist in charge of the defense and part of a larger secret organization. They are joined by Asuka Langley Shikinami (voice of Yuko Miyamura), pilot of Eva-02, a gung-ho teen raised abroad certain that Rei and Shinji were selected for their connections to Gendo while she was chosen on merit.

Many sequels and second parts begin with some sort of recap, or drop in a few bits of dialogue to get the audience up to speed, but Evangelion 2.0 is having none of that. The properties' previous iterations in print and on television were serial, and the films are too, despite the long wait between installments. Hopefully, when all four are completed, the result will be a single cohesive narrative; for now, it means that the movie opens with a scene of a character who is clearly meant to be important but will not be seen again until at least the next installment. The big revelations from You Are (Not) Alone are pushed to the background for now, and the movie ends on something of a cliffhanger (two, actually, once the sequence after the closing credits is factored in). This is clearly a movie and series designed for dedicated fans, who are either going to re-watch the first before seeing this one or have watched it and/or the original Evangelion enough recaps and explanations would just slow them down.

Push the complex mythology back a little, and there's a pretty decent movie underneath. The abrasive Asuka gives the withdrawn Rei and the self-pitying Shinji the necessary kicks in the pants while learning some about connecting with other people herself; it's a straightforward-enough story arc, but it plays out well enough; there's a nice subplot for one of the adult characters, too. And that mythology (in some ways literal; the Angels' name is not completely random) is impressively vast but starting to pull together a little; writer/supervising director Hideaki Anno gives the tale some epic sweep while still grounding it in relatable emotions, and manages to throw in some humor without undercutting the story's high stakes.

The animation is technically superb as well, with the character designs simple but effective. There are some impressive flourishes throughout - little things like demonstrating how an underground city simulates sunrise - and very seldom are there obvious places where Anno and company scrimped (if something on screen is staying still, it's for emotional impact rather than to save money). The integration of digital work with the predominately traditional animation is very impressive; only one object (one of the Angels) really looks like a digital construct in a hand-drawn world. The action is staged very well indeed, no matter whether it's the tremendously fun (but still tense) battle where all three pilots have to work together or the more wrenching sequences near the end).

For all that, Anno's picture still has some serious flaws that might yank non-fans right out while reinforcing certain prejudices against anime in general: The gratuitous (and occasionally underage) T&A fanservice, while often played with a winking bit of self-parody, sometimes works against a film that otherwise wants the audience to take it seriously. A fair amount of what seems like basic information is left out or downright illogical, and though Anno does manage to throttle back on it fairly quickly, the start of the movie has its share of awkward dialogue and internal monologue and philosophizing. And then, on the other end, what could have been a genuine we're-not-messing-around-here shock is muted because it follows a long, heartfelt conversation that might as well have subtitles saying "I have reached the end of my character arc so now something tragic is about to happen to me".

Though likely utterly bewildering to the person who goes in cold, it's an improvement over the first film, to be sure. What it does well at least hints that when all is said and done, the "Rebuild of 'Evangelion'" series could be a pretty spiffy epic taken as a whole.

Full review at EFC.

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