Since 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion has penetrated the cultural consciousness with giant robots, angsty teens and esoteric Biblical references. It is the story of Shinji Ikari, a young boy destined to pilot a giant robot called Unit-01 in a future where creatures called Angels are destined to destroy humanity. But Shinji resists his fate, complaining at every turn and freezing with indecision as the survival of humanity lies on his shoulder. It is truly a one of a kind franchise, the brainchild of the genius and deeply depressed Hideaki Anno. It is a franchise that has plagued him for over 25 years, from a series to a slew of movies that worked to rewrite a dissatisfying ending. Now, Anno is finally done. With the release of his latest and last piece of Evangelion media, Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, the time of the Angels has come to an end.
Thrice Upon a Time is the fourth Rebuild of Evangelion film, which is a complete retelling of the events from the original series. It picks up after the events of Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo as Shinji (Megumi Ogata) and his two fellow pilots Asuka (Yuko Miyamura) and Rei (Megumi Hayashibara) are stranded in a deserted part of former Tokyo, called Tokyo-3, after another near-apocalyptic disaster called Third Impact. They then arrive at a human settlement where they are able to meet surviving and thriving members of the human race.
Meanwhile, a resistance group called Wille engages in a massive battle with Nerv, an organization led by Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), with the goal to start human instrumentality—the forced evolution of humanity into a single, more evolved being. The two groups clash over a deserted Paris, complete with EVA pilot Mari (Maaya Sakamoto) using the Eiffel Tower as a javelin. It is a jaw-dropping display on animation that is able to capture the epic scale of the fight while also ramping up the tension with quick cuts from the battlefield to the bridge of a resistant battleship. The stakes have never felt higher, which is saying a lot for a franchise all about the survival of the human race.
As Shinji, Asuka and Rei reunite with Wille to prevent the Fourth Impact, Shinji finally accepts his fate and embarks on a truly mind-bending journey that breaks our ideas of time, space and existence. In typical Anno fashion, it is beautiful to look at, but barely makes a lick of sense upon first viewing. That is usually a bad thing, but Anno gets a pass because part of Evangelion’s allure is its ridiculously complicated lore and purposefully obtuse storytelling that is both frustrating and fascinating. No matter how many questions Anno leaves unanswered, it’s not enough to keep dedicated audiences away.
Yet, this is also the first time the franchise has shared more about the world of Evangelion outside of the tiny, militarized existence of three teenage pilots. Now, Anno is showing what it’s like for everyday people to live in this strange hellscape and the hope that exists outside of the never-ending conflict between good and evil. This is the first time there has ever been a true feeling of hope in the world of Evangelion. Shinji, Asuka and Rei are shown just existing; they farm, cook, clean and act like normal humans—and it’s important to note here that Rei is actually a clone of a clone and has no real concept of how to exist as an autonomous being. It’s refreshing to have a brief respite from the onslaught of violence that lets not only the characters better understand what they’re fighting for, but gives the audience a wiser perspective on the stakes, as well.
This prolonged sequence of peace also allows for a longer meditation on what it means to process trauma, and if such a thing is even totally possible. Trauma is the name of the game in Evangelion, but it’s never really addressed in a constructive way. Characters watch their friends die in increasingly horrific ways and they are just shown sobbing and screaming, but never really acknowledging the emotional repercussions. Here, traumatic experiences are more thoroughly explored and addressed, which leads to a deeper understanding of even the most vile of characters. This is Anno showing the audience that he is ready to move on. He is no longer stuck simply screaming into the void; he can now better articulate his feelings and move forward.
Meta-storytelling aside, Thrice Upon a Time is beautiful to look at. Aerial battles and strange bouts of theoretical physics are intricately animated with a combination of CGI and hand drawn sequences that prove the unwavering talent of Anno’s animation studio, Studio Khara. Bright contrasting colors somehow make a world almost reduced to dust eerily beautiful, an alluring hellscape that is both threatening and breathtaking.
The final film in the universe of Shinji, Asuka, Rei and EVAs may not be the best place for franchise novices to start, but it should be a great motivator. Rarely do anime franchises end on such a pitch perfect note, but Anno shows it is possible with Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time. After decades of grappling with what this series means to him and using it as a mechanism to process his own emotional baggage, Anno has finally found closure within his broken world full of angst and hope. This is a gasp of relief, a stifled sob of pride that punctuates a cultural milestone. With the release of this film, Anno is finally free.
Director: Hideaki Anno, Mahiro Maeda, Katsuichi Nakayama, Kazuya Tsurumaki
Writers: Hideaki Anno
Stars: Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Yuko Miyamura, Maaya Sakamoto, Akira Ishida, Kotono Mitsuishi
Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Amazon)
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.