They Were 11
Classic science fiction and the science fiction of anime are two very different beasts. The tales by Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and other giants of the genre used the trappings of space travel and intergalactic conflict to make points about our own frail human existence. It gave them the ability to write influential social commentary and to discuss underlying tenants of society with an audience the editorial pages of the New York Times would likely never reach. In its smaller, more intimate moments, classic sci-fi became character-driven, providing a template for shows like Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. Meanwhile, anime has frequently used science fiction as an excuse to have big robots smashing into each other for the amusement of the audience (obvious exceptions aside). There are great sci-fi shows in the anime canon, but most are not classic sci-fi in the typical sense.
They Were 11 is, then, a movie out of step with the typical anime sci-fi film. Although it doesn't push any agenda, it is a character-driven mystery much more in tune with an earlier era. Released in 1986, They Were 11 doesn't have a great visual look, but it's a throwback that forgoes shootouts and mass destruction to concentrate on personal conflicts and creates genuine tension. It isn't perfect, but it's nicely...different.
In the far future, humans leave Earth and colonize space. As they establish territories throughout the galaxies, they meet a variety of different races and wind up establishing an interstellar alliance. For the youth of these planets, attending the Cosmo Academy is the penultimate honor and privilege, and only the rarest of the rare pass the rigorous testing to get in. Tada is one such student. An orphan from Terra with an intuitive sixth sense, he qualifies to take the final entrance exam. For their last assessment, a group of ten cadets is left on a derelict freighter orbiting an unknown planet...but when they arrive and check each other out, they find there are actually eleven of them!
So which one isn't supposed to be there? Is it just a mistake, or is one of them a planted saboteur? The rules of the test say that if one person fails, they all do...and Tada will have to gain the trust of this team of headstrong individuals when they question him due to his extrasensory powers. And when the ship itself looks less like a home and more like a possible death trap, all of them will have to decide if they will push the panic button which will send help...but at the cost of losing their chance to attend the Academy.
From a visual perspective, They Were 11 looks older than its pedigree. The computers have flashing lights and big buttons that would have been comfortable on Kirk's Enterprise, giving the production an unintentionally cheesy look. The character designs are mixed; some work well and some don't. In close-up, a few of them look great, but many long shots lack any real detail. In many ways, it reminds of a bigger-budget Votoms in terms of its cinematic approach. It takes some effort to put aside modern prejudices to watch this one.
However, if the viewer can get past the dated graphics, They Were 11 offers an experience that is pretty rare in anime. Although there's not enough time to define each character completely, we get to know several pretty well in the course of the 90-minute running time. The fact that each has a personal back story and reason for being there is important. And when the sparks fly, it's solid filmmaking. It's unusual for me to feel this way, but They Were 11 would work really well as a live-action film, as the "butting heads" that meet in the film would be great to see with some of today's best young stars. As events unfold and more mysteries present themselves, I became more and more drawn to this world. I wasn't expecting to find it as solidly entertaining (and gripping) as it was.
It doesn't reach a top tier rating, however, for a few important reasons. Although I could get past the timeworn look, there are some logical holes that are frustrating. The players are all teenagers, so the arguments and disagreements about how to handle their predicament are understandable. However, for being the best and brightest the universe has to offer, they don't seem to be able to accomplish much. (Perhaps they do, but we don't get to see but a couple of those accomplishments.) The central mystery--who the 11th man is--winds up to be impossible to solve; although the solution is eventually revealed, there are no clues to give the audience a taste of participation. There's also a food fight scene that is strangely out of character with the rest of the production. It's a goofy departure that doesn't work. Thankfully, it's a mercifully brief (if unnecessary) interlude. All of these by themselves aren't much, but they are a little nagging when brought together.
It may not be perfect--and it certainly doesn't look it--but They Were 11 is still a very good movie in a long-forgotten niche of a genre. I don't expect it to make any waves with its recent DVD release, but I'm glad to see it's available.
They Were 11 -- extremely brief nudity, brief language -- B+