One of the great truths in Japanese film and television is that giant robots are rarely just that. Even in the shallowest works about great machines making ruins of Tokyo, the robots are often mirrors for their pilots ? grand symbols of alienation and loss in a technological age.
Based on the Japanese TV anime produced in the ?90s that grew from low-budget origins to a multimillion-dollar industry, Hideaki Anno?s pretentiously titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone still stands as the best use of the modern Japanese metaphor in the genre?s history.
Celestial ? The Japanese film Evangelion: 1.0, based on a popular ?90s television series, tackes adolescent themes in a post-apocalyptic backdrop. The film focuses on several disaffected teenagers forced to pilot giant robots against an army of grotesque monsters attacking a futuristic Tokyo.
As a nearly identical remake of the first few episodes of Anno?s series, however, the film serves at best as an exercise in pointless nostalgia for any American anime fans who were obsessed with the series as adolescents.
The classic story: a boy is called to an underground military installation erected in the wake of a near-apocalyptic cataclysm. He is charged by the group?s leader, also his estranged father, with fighting an invading alien force called angels by piloting a giant robot, the Evangelion.
That all sounds like the plot of a technophile-soap opera, which is often what the giant robot genre boils down to. Anno?s film, however, is more poetic than any description reveals. The film opens with a classically Japanese motif: the sound of summer cicadas over the crashing of waves. But the sea of Anno?s Japan is blood-red, and this introduction to his post-apocalyptic world is stunning. Evangelion: 1.0 moves quickly from this strangely poignant moment into a grand action sequence ? protagonist Shinji?s arrival in Tokyo and his subsequent battle with an angel.
These opening scenes set the pace for the film, which is essentially a series of brutal, visceral fights between bleeding, humanoid giant robots and strange alien invaders spliced together with long moments of interpersonal dilemma and technobabble-heavy exposition.
The visuals convey a poetry of movement lacking in most Japanese giant monster movies; the camera sweeps down destroyed streets and up skyscrapers to reveal more than just two great bodies playing among a modern cityscape. The scenes removed from the battleground are marked by the same thoughtful visual design. Anno employs a deep, chiaroscuro-heavy style that complements the depth of his characters.
Those characters are the film?s strongest element, but its 98 minutes barely give the supporting players the room to breathe afforded by a television series, almost assuming that a fan-filled audience doesn?t need anything more than Sparknotes. Still, Shinji and the other main characters are given long moments of contemplation, and their relationships are built effectively.
Evangelion: 1.0 retains the bitter display of adolescent alienation that made its predecessor such a hit with teenagers here and in Japan. Protagonist Shinji?s struggle to find his identity is not only personified in his difficulty manning the Evangelion, but more obviously in his interactions with mother-figure Misato and sister-figure Rei. These conflicts are charged with a palpable sexual frustration and awkwardness.
The giant robots of Evangelion themselves are a far cry from the boxy robots of Power Rangers and Voltron. Anno?s monsters cast a positively menacing gaze that is compounded by the sharp angles and grotesquely human qualities of its body ? the perfect metaphor for adolescence. Watching the creature go berserk in an early scene effectively conveys an element of real, uncontrollable terror.
The question Evangelion: 1.0 begs is whether or not it will have any appeal for neophyte viewers. The film is infused with sci-fi technobabble and moves rather quickly. The overused Christian symbols ? cross-shaped explosions and the angels themselves ? carry an air of meaningless pretension. There?s also a bit of awkward ephebophilia ? or sexual preference for mid-adolescents ? toward the end of the film as we get a prolonged and unnecessary shot of Rei ? who I would like to remind the filmmakers is supposed to be 14 ? putting on a skintight suit.
The quality of the visuals and the universality of the characters, however, are effective selling points.
Anno, who started his career drawing the grotesque giant ?warrior? in anime master Hayao Miyazaki?s 1984 classic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is spinning his wheels. In recycling the story, music and images from his beloved work, Anno panders to fans and almost admits that he has nothing new to say.
Evangelion: 1.0 is the first piece of a tetralogy known as Rebuild of Evangelion, the second part of which has already premiered in Japan. The trailer after the credits of Evangelion: 1.0 suggests some interesting departures from the original storyline, but perhaps it might be better for the creative team to leave these classic characters where they stand and strike out on a new venture. After all, the giant robot is a surprisingly rich metaphor; their options are positively limitless.