It's a time-honoured dramatic device to the point it's become clichéd: trap some strangers alone and see what happens. If they have reason to distrust someone - but they're not sure who - all the better. That they're students with their futures on the line is also good. Naturally, there's also some plot twists - and since it's set in space, some standard sci-fi complications.
They Were Eleven takes all these ideas and executes them superbly: this simple fact is what makes it worth watching. It could succumb to mediocrity or melodrama like so many of its peers - and yet it doesn't. Even the internal logic holds together nicely, with awkward conveniences getting tidy explanations at the end.
However, many of the plot twists are predictable - only one of them genuinely surprised me, although that one admittedly knocked me cold. Of the rest you may guess some of the most pivotal developments early on and one development employs sci-fi clichés so hoary any veteran fan should deduce how that will conclude.
In a lesser film this could sink the plot - or at least hardly justify me giving it the rather high grade I have. Though TWE may not be the most scintillating mystery it is thoroughly engrossing and smartly concocted space opera, with nary a dull moment as it moves effortlessly through its story. You won't be left guessing but you will be left entertained.
TWE's animaton is solid and competent if unremarkable; it won't impress but has aged rather well. Visually it's the usual space opera fare from the eighties, pleasant to look at but hardly revolutionary (not that it ever needs to be).
Character designs may sport goofy hair or, in one case, a rather literal rednose, but generally they're very good. The aliens either look exactly like humans or only slightly different - nothing more exotic than Star Trek, which is a peculiar approach for animation.
Another odd choice in character design is one that makes a key twist needlessly confusing. I can't elaborate for fear of spoilers - and the decision makes sense in context, but not quite for reasons that have much to do with the plot.
The music is unmemorably inoffensive synth.
Despite featuring fan favourites David Lucas and Wendee Lee (Spike Spiegel and Faye Valentine in Cowboy Bebop) the English dub is somewhat corny. I found the Japanese track altogether better but then I usually do.
As TWE's title makes abundantly clear there are eleven characters, though only the few principals get any development at all. The secondary characters aren't even given basic personalities - they're just there and that's kind of it. Our protagonists, however, are more than adequately fleshed out. They may have some weird alien abilities or identity issues, but they still feel relatably human.
The inevitable mistrust that emerges in the group is never handled with excessive hysteria or paranoia, which I found a welcome change. While there is the standard tendency featured in this scenario for characters to immediately judge a book by its cover, a lot of the tension comes from reasonable if dire extrapolations. They can be irritating but still sympathetic, elitist yet not absurdly so - and so on.
With engaging characters and an interesting plot, They Were Eleven is great entertainment. The film may not deliver elaborate action sequences, nor does it throw any high concept weirdness at the viewer, but there is an effective blend of character drama and classic sci-fi conventions. Strongly recommended for fans of the genre.
Tada is a young man on the fast track to the Cosmo Academy -- a school which only accepts applicants every three years, and whose entrance rate is under 1%. Having passed all the prior exams, the final test is drawing near: survive for 53 days aboard a derelict spaceship with only 9 other would-be cadets to assist you. But much to the dismay of Tada and his peers, their ship has acquired an eleventh member! Can the crew band together to survive the test? Or will sabotage simply destroy them from within...