TIFF REVIEW: Night Raiders Packs an Intense History Lesson Into Underwhelming Sci-Fi – CBR – Comic Book Resources

Night Raiders is an average dystopian film thrust into social importance for its Native American representation and the horrifying history it evokes.
The indie science fiction film Night Raiders, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Danis Goulet and executive produced by Taika Waititi, is set in the year 2044. In this dystopian future, Canada has been taken over by a fascist government kidnapping children from their families and forcing them to into military academies where they’ll become ruthless soldiers.
It would be almost indistinguishable from any other Hunger Games-like dystopia story if not for two important factors: first, all of the film’s heroes are Indigenous people, mostly from the Cree Nation, and second, almost every horror that occurs in the movie really happened — albeit in a less technologically advanced form — in Canada’s Indian residential school system.
The horrors of these residential schools which lasted from 1894 to 1947 — when Indigenous children were separated from parents, violently abused, forced to convert to Christianity, and told to stop speaking their native languages — are overwhelming. This system of cultural genocide has been proven all the more horrifying with the recent discovery of over a thousand unmarked graves on residential school grounds. Night Raiders makes for a powerful conversation starter about this history. Where the movie falls short is in regards to crafting a science fiction story that holds up beyond the significance of its direct allegory.
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Night Raiders‘ story follows Niska (Elle-Máijá Apiniskim Tailfeathers), a mother raising her teenage daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) in the forest, teaching her Cree language and traditions and shooting any government drones that find them. When they have to go to the city for resources, Niska tries to keep Waseese hidden from the authorities, but sure enough, Waseese’s abducted when Niska’s not looking. The mother decides to rescue her daughter but eventually ends up crossing paths with a Cree resistance group intent on defending their culture from colonizers and saving as many kids from the academy as possible.
The dystopia of Night Raiders is clearly supposed to be our world in the future as opposed to some alternate history, so since the plot is literally history repeating itself, why isn’t there any direct acknowledgment within the film itself about this history repeating itself? One could say this theme is there in subtext, etched into the faces of First Nations resistance fighters whose parents or grandparents suffered under similar regimes. Even so, more direct engagement with this cyclical story could have made for something a lot more narratively interesting as a work of science fiction rather than just replicating the atrocities of the past with added drones.
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Given the film’s low budget, one can’t fault Night Raiders for keeping things relatively simple and minimalist on the action and special effects fronts. One area where minimalism does prove to be a problem, however, is with the cinematography. While it makes sense a dystopian film called Night Raiders would have a dark aesthetic, many of the nighttime scenes are so pitch-black and underlit that it becomes almost impossible to follow what’s happening. Possibly to compensate for the minimalist visuals, Night Raiders‘ sound design is maximalist to the extreme, so loud that you might have to cover your ears.
Night Raiders gets more interesting in its final act. Shifting from being mostly a one-woman show to an ensemble picture adds a sense of community and warmth that demonstrates why these oppressive systems are worth fighting. One subdued but ongoing magical realist thread results in a genuinely exciting final twist, which is also the one moment the movie feels truly original while simultaneously evoking older mythological traditions. If Night Raiders had more imaginative moments like that twist, then it could have been a truly vital piece of science fiction. As it is, it’s merely an average dystopian film thrust into social importance because of the representation it provides and the horrifying history it evokes.
Night Raiders screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and has yet to announce a release date.
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Reuben Baron is a writer, filmmaker, critic and general nerd with a particular interest in animation. He is the author of the ongoing webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist, adapted from one of his contest-placing screenplays. In addition to writing for Comic Book Resources, he has also had articles published on JewishBoston, Anime News Network, Anime Herald and MyAnimeList. Follow him on Twitter at AndalusianDoge.

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