Last week, we covered Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, the second in Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion series. The Rebuild series started with Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone in 2007, which was a more or less faithful retelling of the original anime series from the 1990s. Evangelion 2.0, on the other hand, blew continuity out the window with its dramatic finale. In my last essay, I covered both the meta and in-universe aspects of Evangelion 2.0, both important to consider as Anno diverged his iconic series from the set path that fans expected. Instead, he chose a new path that would become fully realized in today’s film.

So, throw your continuity out the window, start to wonder whether Anno knows what he’s doing (but still trust him), hop through a big time skip, and investigate Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo.

Unlike its immediate predecessor, Evangelion 3.0 took a longer time to develop — three years for Japan and five for its North American release. It was interminable, although nothing compared to the nine-year wait in Japan for its sequel, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time) Given the divergent and stunning cliffhanger it follows, everyone was keen to see what happened next. To this day, the surprising answer remains controversial.

I still remember watching Evangelion 3.0 with a fair amount of confidence in the direction Anno would take. As I sat in the theatre, I was prepared to mentally check off the way Evangelion 3.0 would re-imagine moments from the series with its new status quo. Mentally, I was reading to check off boxes as the story progressed and perhaps be pleasantly surprised by yet another ending twist setting up a final film.

I’d seen the previews for this film that ran at the end of Evangelion 2.0, after all. There’s no way those would be misleading, right?

Then the film started … in space. As fans of Evangelion know, the show is set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Space? This … wasn’t supposed to be happening. It quickly becomes apparent that some time has transpired in-universe between the last entry and this one, unprecedented for the series. Turns out 14 years have passed between the last story and this one, taking the series completely into uncharted waters.

Characters look different, behave differently and have different allegiances. Characters thought to be dead are back, and roughly half the cast from the previous films are absent, their fates unknown.

It turns out that our protagonist and POV character Shinji Ikari had created “near third impact,” which plunged the planet into another level of apocalypse. The semi-grounded sci-fi setting of the original series was gone, replaced with a wholly new world that doubled down on the Evangelion of it all. Everything “real world” is gone.

Shinji is thrust into this new normal after being recovered and thawed from stasis by WILLE, a new organization run by his old friend, Misato Katsuragi. She’s aided by Eva pilots Aksuka and Mari, who now fight against NERV. NERV is still spearheaded by Worst Father of the Year award-winner Gendo Ikari, Shinji’s evil dad.

Anno’s otaku nature still shines through even in this strange new world; Misato and her crew now pilot a flying battleship, a la Gundam’s iconic White Base or the Spaceship Yamato. Evangelion 3.0 feels like Anno doubling down on elements of the mecha genre he never touched in his original series. On paper, that doesn’t sound unusual. To audiences when this first came out? Total disorientation, which was entirely Anno’s design.

Anno’s genius with Evangelion 3.0 was to build off the semi-cathartic ending of Evangelion 2.0 by throwing Shinji’s and the audience’s point of view completely out of whack using sheer cinematic brute-force trauma. We thought it was all going so well. How could it all have gone so horribly wrong?

In Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, Anno takes Shinji from his highest point to his lowest in the blink of an eye — and then takes him lower. The operative emotion of this entry is the feeling of having something you’ve worked hard to achieve pulled from your grasp. The Evangelion series has always had a lot to say about despair and frustration, and 3.0 is in some ways the cruelest of all. There’s a sense that maybe everything really is hopeless and that life can always make it worse at any point.

It’s a relatively short film, more or less just Shinji’s downward spiral. It remains controversial because it changes so much of the series’ hallmark settings and rules just to make the story an even bigger downer. With hindsight, we now know the purpose it serves in the larger Rebuild narrative — leading into (the phenomenal) Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0. As the English title suggests, you cannot redo your decisions. You can only place one foot in from of the other and continue onward. Sometimes that’s enough.

As with Evangelion 2.0, the movie has meta-readings that serve as Anno’s commentary on Evangelion and otaku culture. Having finally placated fans with Shinji getting in the robot and saving the world, Anno approached Evangelion 3.0 as a story where the audience does not want Shinji to get back in the robot. We see what happened the last time he did that.

There are a few explicit moments where Anno begs his own fandom to move on, namely when it’s revealed that the children who pilot the Evangelions are unable to age due to the “curse of the Evangelion.” Freezing a majority of the series’ most popular characters in time because some mysterious force won’t let them go is a hell of a statement for Anno to throw down.

Like the other Rebuild film, Evangelion 3.0 is utterly gorgeous. I sound like a broken record, but once again the voice cast just nails it and Shirō Sagisu doubles down in his score with a mix of epic tracks and soft piano music. The animation takes advantage of the setting to show us new action and vistas we’ve never seen in Evangelion before.

But the real technical triumph of Evangelion 3.0 is the evolution of the Evangelion design. For the first time in decades, the Evangelion aesthetic is dramatically altered. The film features all-new craft and character designs. Misato, for instance, no longer sports her trademark young, kinda-hot instructor look and instead carries herself as a more combat-hardened leader. She’s drawn older, with elements of her iconic costume blended with the new position she holds in the story. The new Evangelions are built to look like they now fight in a half-finished apocalypse; they’re not the classic designs, but they are distinctly of this franchise.

It’s easy now in retrospect to see Evangelion 3.0 for what it is — a necessary pivot point for the Rebuild series to set up Shinji’s ultimate rock bottom entering into the final chapter. At the time, though, it was a mind-blowing expansion of the series that really shocked audiences. For years, I held back on my assessment of the film, waiting to see what the next one would bring. Luckily for me, the final film (Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0) proved not only the best film in the Rebuild of Evangelion series but also one of the best animated films of all time.

I reviewed Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 upon its initial release. But next time, I’ll conclude this run of Touching a NERV with a more in-depth tribute to that final film and the Rebuild franchise as a whole. I promise it won’t take nine years.