EVANGELION 1.11 BluRay Review
Children battle God Himself using big robots! Weeeeeee!
Last week Funimation released the first of the four new "Neon Genesis Evangelion" films on BluRay. Titled "Evangelion 1.11 : You Are (Not) Alone", its story roughly covers that of the first six episodes of the influential series which aired on Japanese television channels wayyyyy back in 1995. Come to think of it, we were busy anticipating the first of these films in 2006 already. Damn... time sure does fly.
So is Evangelion still worth a look in 2010? Is the new movieversion worth watching the same story all over again? Is the BluRay any good? In short yes, yes, and yes, but rest assured that I'll elaborate. Hugely even, if I don't control myself...
A short Evangelion history:
Trying to pin down the whole Evangelion phenomenon in a few words is not easy, and doing so without any spoilers whatsoever is impossible. If you want to stay completely fresh to the series, skip this part and go to "The Story" (which will only reveal the basic setup at the start of the first film). However, I'm not planning to spoil EVERYTHING here anyway so if you don't mind having just a bit of fore-knowledge feel free to stick around.
When the series "Neon Genesis Evangelion" started being broadcast in Autumn 1995, little did studio Gainax expect that it had a winner on its hands but after the first few episodes had aired it soon got quite a following. The series was a weird mix of spectacular mecha drama, religious angst and fanservicing harem comedy, yet it also featured a surprisingly bleak look at human psychology and the most apocalyptic storyline this side of "Urotsukidoji". And even though its main protagonist Shinji remained largely clueless and focused only on his own misery, the people surrounding him were all confronted with what must be called "The Mother of All Conspiracies", at times having to outwit the plans of God Himself!
Just another "Giant-Mechas-versus-Aliens" series? Think again...
It all made for compelling viewing and as the 26-episode series neared the end people started reminding Gainax that the word "fan" comes from "fanatic".
"Neon Genesis Evangelion" had a very strong start, but during the last ten episodes Gainax ran out of time and money to do the first half of the series justice. This culminated in the "grand finale" of episode 25 and 26, which was anything but a "grand finale": none of the many burning questions were answered nor were any of the subplots resolved. Instead, it showed a glimpse of Shinji's disturbed psyche by way of an extended slideshow. Fan reaction to this "artistic decision" ranged all the way from elated to baffled to outraged, with writer/director Anno Hideaki even receiving death threats.
But by this time Gainax also started to reap the benefits of the cash-cow they appeared to have created. With money suddenly flowing in, plans were made to fix the mangled ending of the original series.
A restart was made from episode 20 onward. Episodes 21, 22, 23 and 24 got partly redone, and were re-broadcast in expanded versions which showed more background information, creating a better setup for the new ending Anno was planning. Episode 25 and 26 were scrapped completely and the second stab at a "Grand Finale" would be shown as a movie to be released in cinemas.
Fan anticipation rose to unprecedented heights, but the movie took a lot of effort (and money) to be finished so Gainax re-edited what material they had and released "Evangelion: Death & Rebirth" in the cinemas. The first part of this film ("Death") was a quick recap of episodes 1 till 24, and the second part ("Rebirth", you guessed it) showed the first half of the originally intended film. This film was followed by a second one called "The End of Evangelion", the first half of which was the same "Rebirth" bit that was already in the first film. But the second half was a spectacularly psychedelic affair, mixing sexual and religious references at such high speed that it made the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey" look almost boring in comparison. It showed the End of the World in a way that was either Anno Hideaki's artistic masterpiece or the biggest "Fuck-You" note to fans in anime history.
Needless to say this didn't make the series any less controversial, nor did it become easier to understand. The new ending did provide more "closure" though and was undoubtedly more rewarding to viewers. It managed to keep discussions about the whole Evangelion series going all the way until today.
And now, more than a decade after "The End of Evangelion" we have this new series of films which form a complete reboot, starting with episode 1 again. The first three movies will allegedly more-or-less follow the story of the first 24 episodes (with some changes), while the fourth will once again be a completely new ending. The first of these new films was released as "Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone", and later re-released in a slightly expanded version as "Evangelion 1.01: You Are (Not) Alone". Unfortunately the early home versions seemed to suffer from some transfer issues, so these were fixed in a new (re-)release which was called "Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone". This is the version reviewed here.
(Note: The home-releases of the second film are rumored to be labeled with the number 2.22, which makes me wonder what combination of slight changes, additions and mastering errors are necessary to warrant such a high number...)
Earth is in a shambles fifteen years after a global disaster, called "Second Impact", which killed half of all people on the planet. Adding insult to injury: Japan suddenly gets attacked by huge creatures called Angels. To battle these Angels the humans are building a number of equally huge controllable cyborg monsters themselves, called Evas, and so far have managed to finish two.
However, only a handful of people on the planet are genetically capable of controlling an Eva. Enter Shinji Ikari: an awkward youth with a major minority complex who happens to be the only one able to pilot the second Eva. Even though he seems mentally unable to shoulder the heavy burden of having to save Earth, he is rushed into battle without proper training as Angel after Angel attacks.
But what ARE these Angels? And what are they looking for?
When the new Evangelion movies were announced the press release clearly stated the first three films would be following the existing storyline. Number one would be covering the first six episodes of the old television series, embellishing it with modern cgi-techniques. Thing is, the series originally aired in 1995 so this film version is separated from it by more than 10 years. It would be safe to assume that you'd encounter a huge disparity between the static and sparse design of the series and the fluent computer animation used nowadays.
So the first big surprise "Evangelion 1.11 : You Are (Not) Alone" has to offer is that the end result actually looks consistent! There is no jumping between styles and the 3D-effects do not feel forced. Early reviews mentioning 3D-weapons on 2D-robots had me worried but the mix never gets as obvious as in "The Sky Crawlers" or the "Ghost in the Shell: 2.0" reboot. At times you're watching new material and it looks glorious as expected, but at other times you're looking at what seems to be the same old artwork as in the series, only now it's drawn impossibly sharp and looking better than ever before.
The original series suffered from a low framerate used to save money on production costs, so whenever action became frantic it also became "stuttery" and hard to follow. Later releases of the series on DVD even introduced extra newly drawn inbetween-frames to counter the lack of fluidity, and that indeed improved things a bit. But this movie version completely eclipses all previous efforts: even if it's based on the exact same designs as the series, every frame has been redrawn and the only "stuttery" elements left in it are there as artistic decisions made by Anno himself. Objects now also have depth and reflections, making the whole world of Evangelion look awesome. Just wait until the sixth Angel slides into view...
As for the story, it does suffer a bit from being an abbreviated version of the series as the film is nearly 25 minutes shorter than the original six episodes were end-to-end (not counting repeated opening and closing credits), and while the other movies cover parts of the story which might need some pruning, the first one certainly didn't have much of that luxury. While the fun of Evangelion always has been to try and figure out what the hell is happening, the first episodes in the series introduced all of the main characters and did a terrific job in establishing their often awkward interconnections.
Prime amongst these is the complicated relationship between Shinji, his female colleague Eva-pilot Rei and Shinji's father. Rei is beautiful, mysterious and of the same age as Shinji, and even though she is emotionally distant Shinji is obviously attracted to her. However, he desperately craves the affection of his father who is constantly giving him a cold shoulder, while the man gives Rei nearly unlimited attention. Whenever Rei is near, Shinji is torn between his attraction and his jealousy, a mindset that was carefully established in the series. By clipping bits and pieces away the movie loses a lot of this "steam". Shinji accidentally spying Rei naked now smacks more of basic fanservice and less like the emotional jolt it used to be, although the resolution of that scene (later on the escalator) is still pretty damn brilliant.
Because of this nick-and-tuck exercise newcomers may find it difficult to relate to Shinji who was never too appealing a main character in the first place. The same effect hits the tension surrounding the general set-up, with precious little time spent on Shinji wondering what the hell Evas and Angels are anyway. There never was much exposition in the series, yet the film has even less!
But before it sounds like I'm bashing the movie to bits, let me stress that all what remains is still very enjoyable and easily outshines most other anime efforts. The end of this movie marked the point where my enjoyment of the series was at its highest, and the final conversation between Rei and Shinji is as strong a scene in the film as it was in the series. The sense of doom is still prevalent, with all of humanity hanging on by its fingernails during every single fight with the Angels. Who are, by the way, still as eerie and mysterious as they were 15 years ago.
Although storywise the old series wins from the film by a small margin, this movie version flat-out clobbers the series in animation quality. Evangelion veterans might be missing bits and bobs but the big setpieces are there in their entirety and looking better than ever. Still a groundbreaking piece of science fiction animation even after all these years, this film comes highly recommended for fans of the series and newcomers alike.
On to the BluRay:
Note: I still cannot take proper screenshots from BluRays as the only player I have isn't attached to a computer. Therefore I'd like to give a big round of thanks to the inimitable Ulrik from Affenheimtheater and the Asian BluRay Guide for allowing me to use his instead!
Anyway, after all of this long talk about Evangelion in general, this review of the BluRay itself will be pitifully short. The reason for that is that both image and sound are pretty much flawless.
Brilliant razorsharp video? Check.
Brilliant razorsharp audio, both in lossless 6.1 English and lossless 6.1 Japanese? Check and double-check.
Playable in both region A and region B? CHECK !!! Again, thanks go to Ulrik for confirming that this specific release plays on region A and B, but is actually blocked for region C. So it's not exactly regionfree but as I'm in region B (that's Europe, Africa, Middle East and Australia) I'm not complaining too hard...
Which leaves packaging and the extras I suppose. Well, while the packaging isn't like the old-style Korean "pimp" we all know and love this edition definitely satisfies the magpie in me. The disc is not in an Amaray but a cardbord holder with a slipcase, and both make generous use of holographic foil. It makes this edition small but flashy, easy to store and easy on the eyes.
The extras however leave me wanting for more. Trailers for other Funimation releases (some in HD, some not), TV-adverts for "Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone" and what seems to be six times the same trailer with different music. There is also a very interesting "behind-the-scenes" which lasts 16 minutes, but it's basically a breakdown of the more intricate scenes, showing the whole process from thumbnail-sketch to finished cgi-extravaganza. No words are spoken nor are there any people on display at all, you only see consecutive footage in various states of being finished. While it allows the viewer to follow the process and draw their own conclusions it doesn't really tell you anything. With Evangelion being the phenomenon it is, couldn't we get a documentary on it's conception, success and impact? Or perhaps a video interview with Hideaki Anno himself? Ah well, there is always Google and Wiki I suppose...
Thankfully the accompanying booklet tells more. It is quite short (20 pages only) but there is a lot of interesting information within. Who knows, maybe when all 4 films have been released it all adds up to quite a satisfying book.
So this concludes this review. The movie is pretty damn good in its current "1.11" version, and the new Funimation disc shines both on the outside and in how it displays the main feature. Extras could be better but both audio and video are demo-like perfect. For a new disc this one can be found remarkably cheap if you look carefully, and therefore this release comes highly recommended!