This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Alexander Wood’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Where to even begin? Coming in at 87 precious minutes, END OF EVANGELION is as dense as antimatter. It not only contains a plethora of thematic and plot-based baggage from the NEON GENESIS EVANGELION TV series, but it also injects the universe with a myriad of new material. So rarely is a piece of art so reflexive, interpersonal, and superior to its progenitor(s). In terms of its significance to cinema and the visual arts in general, it is a landmark, a touchstone of the medium.
END OF EVANGELION succeeds at every single one of its objectives. Not only does it succeed in its fan service by providing a more concrete ending, but it also assaults the very individuals who criticized the original ending of the series in the first place (of which myself are included.) What’s more, what makes END OF EVANGELION really special it that it walks this tightrope of criticism and gratitude while simultaneously expanding upon the conclusions and theses presented within the same finale the film is replacing / in reply to / exorcising / complimenting. It is at the same time a response, a defense, an attack, an addendum, a further exploration, and a thrilling conclusion. It’s about as perfect a piece of art can get.
So again, where do I begin? There’s so much to unpack, so much to discuss and wrap my woefully insignificant analytical skills around. I suppose we’ll tackle the film in descending order: from its most surface level concerns to its most subterranean obsessions. We’ll be traveling from the Geo-front straight into the Central and Terminal Dogma’s.
At face value, END OF EVANGELION is the conclusion anime fans and fans of pop entertainment desired. The first thirty minutes are about as action packed as the series gets, as we (clearly) witness the death of NERV, its subordinates, and the planet itself. It fulfills an otaku’s carnal desires by including plenty of naked women, unfettered violence, and striking visual imagery. In addition, this half of the film wraps up and explains quite plainly many of the unresolved mysteries the original finale so callously ignored. (Note: I’m not trying to judge, here. I really enjoyed the original finale. But, it did feel it was made for Anno and Anno himself, despite its universal intentions.) It is revealed that Seele’s motivations were not plainly evil, and neither were Gendo’s. It is revealed that the Human Instrumentality Project is meant to turn humanity into one unified organism, bereft of any social constraints and distance. It is revealed that Rei’s emotional awakening has caused her to rethink her relationship as Gendo’s “doll,” and that Gendo is more like Shinji than it first initially appeared. Finally, it is revealed that Instrumentality will bring about the Third Impact through some crazy Freudian-religious ritual. In the second half of the film, we witness this ritual take place. It is feast for the eyes, but also harkens back to the wild psycho-analysis-montages we witnessed in episodes 25 and 26. But, with this montage is the added context and stakes of the Human Instrumentality Project’s visual actualization. Therefore, for an otaku (or a general audience), these moments become more palatable. On the surface, END OF EVANGELION is the action-packed-yet-still-just-cryptic-and-ambiguous-enough finale many fans of the original series desired.
But, of course, that’s just on the surface. One step below the Geo-front of the film, into the Central Dogma, are its themes of detachment, isolation, and personal reality. EVANGELION as a series has always been about the deconstruction of the self, and how our own personal realities relate to each other’s. As Darren says so wonderfully,
“(END OF EVANGELION) travels to a new beginning, via the end, which itself doesn't exist, and shows the fundamental fight at the heart of human nature. It is impossible to be an individual, but we must learn to become one. Pure, unfiltered collectivism does exist, but only in our mental reality where we imagine we know the world, not in actual reality where we are within the unknowable realities of others. To become a God is to know all realities, and this fight between the collective and the individual drives us all towards becoming one (although none of us get close at all). To refuse to connect, to refuse to understand others and their realities, that's what destroys the world.”
We see this thesis manifest mostly through time spent with Shinji and his fractured psyche. From the get-go, he is a boy without perspective. While he has been mistreated, his reaction to these injustices have been selfish and lacking awareness of other’s emotions, inner-battles, and circumstance. Instead of opening up, which would solve many of these problems, Shinji instead chooses to shut down. The brilliance of the show (and the film) is that through expert characterization and presentation, we don’t necessarily blame Shinji for his unwillingness to accept his own reality. He becomes a character we adore and sympathize with, despite his annoying demeanor (“GET IN THE ROBOT, SHINJI” memes notwithstanding.) We witness the interior realities of others; of Asuka, Rei, Misato and Ritsuko, along with Shinji’s. In this way, the film presents its thematic conclusions by showing us how each of these character’s interior realities differ. When Instrumentality finally occurs, it is easy to see why Shinji would choose the death of individuality and why our individual realities are precisely the stuff that divides us. And yet, at the same time, his eventual decision to reverse Instrumentality makes complete sense. Once instrumentality occurs, Shinji is finally capable of understanding the realities of others, how others see the universe and see Shinji Ikari himself. By witnessing the complicated feelings of those closest to him, most of whom genuinely like Shinji in their interior minds, Shinji is able to understand the necessity of individual experience and the truth of human nature. Human nature is one of limited perspective, and this limited perspective (our AT fields) are what we must fight against. Not by turning into primordial soup. Rather, by connecting, struggling, crying, and trying to understanding our fellow Man. When he reverses Instrumentality, he does so knowing more pain is in the future. But, without pain, there can be no salvation, as the proverb goes. All of this analysis does not include those final few moments of the film, which are so interpretable I won’t bother discussing them at length here. Let’s just say I find Shinji’s strangulation of Asuka to be a resumption of his Freudian desires and the re-inception of necessary pain into the world.
After the Central Dogma, we descend into the Terminal Dogma. This is the film at its most metatextual and subterranean. At this level, we witness Hideaki Anno contend with the series own fandom and the relationship of art to reality itself. As I briefly mentioned above, END OF EVANGELION would not exist without otaku. It is this very otaku Anno assaults in this film. There are moments, from the egregious gore-filled climax, to Misato and Shinji’s strange kiss, to the live-action scenes near the finale, to THAT scene with sticky fingers, which mock and point fingers. At otaku, and strangely, Anno himself. As a response to otaku criticism, END OF EVANGELION is incendiary to both the audience and the author. Let me explain.
By far, my favorite scenes in the entire film are those that dip into reality: the real world which both otaku and Anno inhabit. The camera pans over an audience, eagerly awaiting the premiere of a film, supposedly this one? Meanwhile, Shinji monologues about the essence of dreams and reality, and how people use dreams to disconnect and fantasy to retreat from real human emotions and confrontation. Of course, this is a response to otaku and their obsession over these fantasy worlds. The reason NGE is so popular, Anno contends through this connection, is due to otaku’s embodying the same characteristics of Shinji himself. If not for their backlash towards the show’s finale, and their rejection of the reality Anno created at the end of his own series, END OF EVANGELION would have never existed (supposedly, according to some sources.) Isn’t that sort of ironic, as Anno is the one behind END OF EVANGELION, after all? He’s the one who’s acquiesced, given in, produced both the series and its alternate ending. Doesn’t that make him complicit, too? There’s another layer here, found in these live action shots, that points the finger back at the filmmaker himself. It’s no secret Shinji and his struggles are a metaphor for Anno’s existential depression. Therefore, by creating the character of Shinji, and disappearing into this fantasy world himself, whether it is in order to work out his own personal demons or not, isn’t that sort of hypocritical? Or, even better: only END OF EVANGELION is hypocritical, as it backtracks on the liberating finale that broke Anno free of the constraints of the fantasy world he created in NGE. In any case, there’s a sense of disdain for this beast he’s created / resurrected through the immense success of the series. As much as Shinji’s liberation has helped others to realize the root of their depression and overcome it, it has also enabled others to retreat into this fantasy and disconnect themselves. Just look at me. I’m sitting here writing this review at my girlfriend’s dance practice. I’m not focused on her getting funky at all. On the contrary, all I could think about for the past three days is this goddamn movie. I think Anno recognizes the problematic nature of his profession and is openly critiquing it in these scenes. I also believe he’s critiquing the method of his own liberation. His criticisms of fandom and fan-guided expectations predate and predict the era of Marvel nerds and Snyder Cut activists. And even if my interpretation of these moments aren’t 100% rock solid, END OF EVANGELION’s Terminal Dogma still blew my mind.
I guess those are the best two words to describe END OF EVANGELION. Mind blowing. It is a film that succeeds on all of its levels. It is a raucous, action-filled, and effective fan service. It is an nuanced expansion of the series’ psychological and existential concepts. And it is an unbelievable commentary on the complicated world both its author and his fans inhabit. It is one of most dense, interpretable, gorgeous, exciting and genuinely profound works in all of cinema, let alone animation.
There’s good reason it’s so special to so many people.