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“Thrice Upon a Time” is the subtitle, and time is foremost on the mind. This is the fourth and final film in a retelling of the series “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which kicked off back in 2007 — meaning more time has passed between “1.0” and “3.0+1.0” than between “1.0” and the original series it set out to remake.

The original “Neon Genesis Evangelion” aired between 1995 and 1996, and has been a fixture of Japanese pop culture ever since. In shaping the series, creator Hideaki Anno took inspiration from his favorite giant robot franchises, like “Ultraman” and “Mobile Suit Gundam.” But his key innovation is characters with serious emotional depth and deep psychological issues. Anno’s avatar is protagonist Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), a young man who suffers from feelings of alienation and inadequacy.

“3.0+1.0” is Anno’s third go at providing “Evangelion” with a conclusion. The first was the final two episodes of the TV series, which resulted in the director getting death threats for its rushed animation and a refusal to provide easy answers. The second was “The End of Evangelion” (1997), a big-screen reimagining of those two episodes that was better animated but no less mind-warping.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (Shin, Ebangerion Gekijo-ban)
Rating
Run Time 155 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

“3.0+1.0” begins right where “3.0” ended in 2012. Shinji is virtually catatonic, having just witnessed the death of Kaworu, one of the few people he had ever felt close to. Meanwhile, the confrontation between two rival forces — NERV, who want to end humanity as we know it, and WILLE, who like humanity just fine as-is, thank you — is about to come to a head.

That final confrontation, which makes up the bulk of the film, features some incredible animation. Time has allowed for amazing advancements in CG, and “3.0+1.0” blows away the first three films. While I think I’ll always prefer the hand-drawn elegance of “End of Evangelion,” there’s no denying that computer animation allows “3.0+1.0” to bring the spectacle to a new level.

But under that spectacle is a very personal story.

Shinji wasn’t the only one feeling shell-shocked following “Evangelion 3.0.” In a statement apologizing for the long gap between films, Anno described a serious bout with depression that kept him from working up the energy to even visit his studio. Thankfully, he slowly got back to a place where he could take on the titanic task of helming this 155-minute epic, with a little help from his friends — “3.0+1.0” has no less than three credited directors, with Anno in the role of chief director, screenwriter and executive producer.

Internal conflict: The psychological and emotional issues that Shinji Ikari, protagonist of the 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' series and films, grapples with give the anime depth and poignancy. | 'EVANGELION:3.0+1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME' © KHARA
Internal conflict: The psychological and emotional issues that Shinji Ikari, protagonist of the ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ series and films, grapples with give the anime depth and poignancy. | ‘EVANGELION:3.0+1.0 THRICE UPON A TIME’ © KHARA

In this film, Shinji takes a similar journey, with friends old and new helping him slowly reach a healthier mental state and take part in the final battle. As the action moves forward, that battle becomes increasingly surreal, eventually smashing through the fourth wall with abandon. Thrice is not the charm for those hoping for a definitive, easy-to-understand ending for “Evangelion.” Like its predecessors, “3.0+1.0” raises more questions than it answers. Time is a circle.

For me, that complexity is the true power of “Evangelion.” For all the robot action, merchandise, and the now decades-long debates about which character is cutest (the answer, for the record, is Misato), “3.0+1.0” and its brethren are essentially art films, the visions of a creator brave enough to bare his damaged soul on screen — and help us look inside ourselves.

Why redo “Evangelion” in the first place? There is a parallel universe in which Hideaki Anno has directed three or four original films since 2007, and that’s a place I would like to visit someday. Still, the continued success of this franchise is a powerful rebuttal against lowest common denominator filmmaking. It’s inspiring to see audiences willing to grapple with this emotionally and intellectually demanding story time after time.

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