Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux are surprisingly similar films and stumble over nearly identical narrative problems: both want to be sci-fi epics with surprise endings. I’d never recognized this as a potential problem, but after seeing these films, I realize that sci-fi world-building and the generation of surprises or twists actually depend upon two very different approaches to providing narrative information.
World building is judged by how completely (and suggestively) an imagined world is explained. Exposition necessarily comes early and is extensive. In this, successful world-building seems to me a bit like a rocket trying to hit escape velocity: it roars full force early on, and if everything goes right, it can power-down and sail to its destination. The long and detailed voice-over narrations that open Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux but then disappear are examples of what I mean.
Surprise endings work in just the opposite direction. Viewers supply a probable ending that the narration cultivates (or at least permits) by providing only incomplete information in the early portions of the film. When at the film’s end the missing information is provided or the overlooked information is brought to the foreground, the surprise reshapes the details of the story into a different plot. In Ender’s Game, for example, Ender (and in the book, the readers) discovers that the game he has been playing in preparation for a war is in fact the war itself. In Aeon Flux, Aeon discovers that she and everyone she know is a clone and that the villain she’s been sent to kill is a hero attempting to save everyone’s life.
The problem these films run into is that no reader can supply an unsurprising ending against which the “true” ending appears a surprise because the initial world and any story outcomes have to be built by the narration. Stated differently, there are no viewers competent to provide an adequate starting point from which a twist can register as surprise. If you tell me Ender plays a game, he’s playing a game. If you tell me he’s fighting a war, he’s fighting a war. I have no basis to assume anything about what is normal or likely in this imaginary world. And if you tell me one thing is going on and then later reveal that that’s not the case, it feels like a cheat. (I think sci-fi novels have a few more easy tricks up their sleeves than films do to work around this problem.)
There are, of course, examples of how to get around this problem. The Matrix and Terminator both have it both ways by beginning in an imagined world that appears to be exactly like our own. As a result, this world needs little explaining and a set of audience expectations are built in. The surprise–which in both cases boils down to different versions of “things are not what they seem”–is also revealed early, roughly at the end of their first acts. In both cases, the familiarity of the initial world and the early presentation of the unexpected “ending” reduces the conflict between surprise and world building. In a sense, in both cases surprise is used as a tool for the world building.
(I also wonder–although I can’t come up with a good example right now–whether, generic expectations can offer a substitute for an initially familiar world as a way of getting around the problem…)
Whatever the case, judging by Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux, pulling off the late surprise in sci-fi is clearly tough to do. And when it fails to come off, the consequences seem pretty dire. It’s easy to wind up not caring. And then everything fizzles.