Once upon a time in the ’60s, a critic would have known exactly what to say: that the gorgeous, cacophonous anime sound-and-light show “Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo” should only be watched in an altered state. That would be a serviceable approach to a film that too often substitutes obfuscation for complexity, to relax and drift along on the often-spectacular, pulsating visuals. For those not fully initiated in the moony psychobabble mythology of this Emo/Mecha epic, straining earnestly to understand would be to risk injury. While anime films crated by such brainy artists as Hayao Miyazaki (“The Wind Rises”) and Mamoru Oshii (“Ghost in the Shell”), have registered strongly outside the fanboy sphere, “Evangelion: 3.0” seems likely to play well only to devotees, and not even to all of them. The anime fan writer Reckoner, in the Nihon Review, has already aptly declared the film “a disorienting mess.”
The brainchild of just one man, veteran anime writer-director Hideaki Anno, the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” franchise began as a 26-episode TV series broadcast in 1995 and 1996. It was followed closely by two feature films, “Evangelion: Death and Rebirth” (1997) and “The End of Evangelion” (1997), which were intended to repair the damage inflicted by a mystical mumbo-jumbo ending even more extreme than the “Lost” finale. The current release is the third in a series of four new movies, launched in 2007 and known collectively as “Rebuild of Evangelion,” that retell the story of the original series, with some fairly drastic plot revisions.
The saga focuses on a chosen teenager, Shinji Ikari, a highly reluctant hero whose issues with his stern military father take a strange turn when the elder Ikari calls his son to Tokyo to pilot a giant robot (known as an Eva). The robot is the only weapon that can stand up against a mysterious race of giant humanoid monsters, the Angels, that have popped up from God-knows-where to repeatedly attack Tokyo. (The Mecha subgenre that includes “Evangelion” was a leading influence on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.”)
The original “Evangelion” series was considered groundbreaking in spending quality time on metaphysical and religious brow furrowing, and on the characters’ emotional problems, almost giving short shrift to the staple ingredient of two-fisted robot-on-monster action. In “Evangelion: 3.0,” Shinji (voiced by Spike Spencer in the English-dubbed version reviewed) awakens after 14 years in suspended animation in deep space and becomes a pawn in an intramural conflict between two factions in the anti-Angel defense forces. The original group, Nerv, commanded by Shijni’s father, has launched the Human Instrumentality Project, which seems to be a genocidal purge designed to jumpstart evolution. The splinter group Wille, which includes several of Shinji’s former comrades-in-arms, is attempting to prevent this.
The amount of heartache and navel gazing indulged in all the installments of “Evangelion” has always been a sticking point for non-fans. Here, Shinji’s distress at the additional destruction that has been visited upon the world in his absence is at once understandable and a dreary drag on the narrative. It strains credulity that the only colleague who ever loses patience with Shinji is Asuka Langley Soryu (Tiffany Grant), a one-eyed Valkyrie in red body armor whose short fuse boosts the movie’s energy level.
Strange twists that pay off include the creepy-crawly Oedipal revelation that the computer operating system in Shinji’s giant Eva is the consciousness of his mother, downloaded and installed (in a manner never specified) by Shinji’s dad.
The movie can be enjoyed on a purely visual level, as a Mecha head trip. The images were created as a hybrid of hand-drawn and CG animation that allows complete fluidity of movement, with shots that swoop all around and though the ingeniously complicated machinery. The deployment of each new technological marvel — such as the space battleship Wunder, which has decks and wings bristling in all directions, like a giant robot’s Swiss army knife — has an operatic sense of scale. (The witty mechanisms were designed by Ikuto Yamashita.)
As a narrative, “Evangelion 3.0” may make you feel your brain is turning into goat cheese. As a showcase for pure visual ingenuity and splendor, though, it rocks.