I saw "The Green Hornet" over the weekend, but that's not the franchise title I want to talk about today. Instead, I have a slightly older title in mind, one that I had written off sight unseen a few years ago - the feature film remake of the "Neon Genesis Evangelion" anime series, titled "Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone." For the record, I saw "1.11," the DVD release with a few extra minutes of footage, not the "1.01" theatrical release.
"Evangelion" was one of the major anime titles of the 90s, a massively popular, influential, and controversial story of giant robots, teen angst, and sinister Christian theology. It was produced by Studio GAINAX, famous for being founded by a pack of dedicated anime fanboys aiming to revolutionize the industry. And to an extent, they did. "Evangelion" was considered a watershed title that defined an era and introduced anime to many Western viewers. Anime fans of a certain age all know the characters on sight, even if they never watched a frame of the twenty-six episode television series or the two follow-up films.
When I heard that GAINAX, was planning to remake the series, I wasn't expecting much. At the time the "Rebuild of Evangelion" project was announced in 2002, GAINAX hadn't had a hit in a while. The studio had always leaned heavily on "Evangelion" merchandise, and there were other "Evangelion" projects like video games and manga trotted out every few years, aimed at milking the franchise for all it was worth. In the interim, I'm happy to report that "Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagaan," a thoroughly enjoyable new giant robot show, became a smash in 2007, giving the studio something else to fiddle with.
But on to the reboot. "You Are (Not) Alone" is the first of four planned "Rebuild" films and covers the material found in the first six episodes of "Neon Genesis Evangelion." What surprised me about the new feature was not the changes from the original, but the relative lack of changes. The series is essentially recreated, practically scene for scene, and largely using repurposed or painstakingly copied character animation from the original show. I knew "Evangelion" well enough to spot new animation and any deviations from the original script, but there weren't many instances of either.
This is not to say that the new "Evangelion" is a simple re-edit of the existing material. Nearly every frame has been heavily retouched or enhanced. Backgrounds have been replaced, details added, and CGI used to add more interesting dimensions to the fight scenes. All the enemy "Angels" have been redesigned for greatly pumped-up battle scenes. What's really impressive is how seamlessly the old and new elements have been combined. If this was the first time I'd seen "Evangelion," I wouldn't have been able to tell which bits were from the original and which were not.
After sitting through "You Are (Not) Alone," I'm not sure the film can really be called a reboot since so much of it really is taken directly from the original source. Yet at the same time so much has also been changed, it felt like I was seeing certain familiar events for the first time. The film's climactic battle with the Sixth Angel had the most new material and was a huge improvement on the original. The closest thing I can think to compare the effect to is the "Special Edition" versions of the "Star Wars" trilogy, if George Lucas had added twice as many new scenes, ten times as many new effects to existing scenes, and then re-edited half the film.
Using a new term, "rebuild," feels appropriate for "You Are (Not) Alone," and I can't help wondering if this approach could work for other films. Since "Evangelion" is purely animation and so much of it centers around these big, wild fight sequences, obviously the techniques it employs wouldn't be as effective for something like "Star Wars" or even "Beauty and the Beast." Still, this could be a good example for filmmakers currently trying to revamp classic films by converting them for 3D or enhancing them with new CGI effects. I don't think the "Evangelion" rebuilds or any of these other reboots and reissues are necessary, but if the studios demand them, something like "You Are (Not) Alone" seems to do the least amount of damage by preserving the old while indulging the new.
Is the new "Evangelion" better than the original? It's a different beast, with a narrative that emphasizes different things but doesn't shed as much of its episodic nature as it probably should have for a feature. I certainly liked the new film and I'm anticipating the future ones, though I have to wonder how much of this is due to my nostalgia for the series. On the other hand, no reboot ever managed to evoke so much nostalgia from me for its original source material - because so much of the rebuild IS the original source material!
We've certainly entered an interesting new age in cinema. If this catches on, I wonder what they'll rebuild next?