The melancholy Canadian sci-fi thriller “Night Raiders” hardly stands out among other terrible dystopian dreams. The year is 2043, and the setting is a (in theory) united North America. Warmongering “Jingos” promote a dismal military-based culture, while disenfranchised Indigenous peoples are patrolled by massive, low-flying drones. Nobody talks about the enigmatic Meekaw Virus or the similarly enigmatic conflict, both of which have exacerbated racial tensions and class disparities. Assimilation is an unachievable goal, as the pledge of loyalty at the Academy, a military school for a sadly homogeneous society, proclaims: “One country, one language, one flag.”
Given how so much time Goulet and her partners spend implying rather than building their nightmare scenario, the all-purpose authoritarian motto stands out in “Night Raiders.” It’s always clear who we’re supposed to support for and against thanks to the bland speech and dreary images. Given the film’s defining counter-cultural thrust, the tidy, inert, and unoriginal nature of the film’s style is also rather unfortunate: should Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a resourceful single mother, let her easily influenced teenage daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) be raised by the Academy?
After surrendering Waseese to the Jingos, Niska attempts to accept the Academy narrative by reuniting with estranged friend of the family Roberta (Amanda Plummer) and her son Pierre (Eric Osborne), both of whom now acts as a Jingo spokesman. When our options are to cheer for Niska and her fellow Indigenous underdogs or hiss at the blatantly wicked Academy, defined as they are by generic violence and pseudo-universal indoctrination, there isn’t much of a dramatic tension for viewers. “Night Raiders” may occasionally represent America’s current somber mood, but it fails to convince as either a feel-good film or a foreboding prophecy.
Because “Night Raiders” isn’t firmly rooted in its characters’ fears, it’s often difficult to understand what motherhood and citizenship mean to Niska beyond essential ideals that are instinctively defended and worried about. Even members of Indigenous communities have a superficial sense of brotherhood. The Academy, which is distinguished by military drills (how fast can you assemble a rifle?) and patronizing administrators who insist that the Cree “can’t take care of their own families,” is contrasted with an informal yet friendly Cree bonfire meeting. The bond between Niska and Waseese allegedly disproves that assertion.
Because Niska spends the whole of the film attempting to reconnect with her daughter, whose secret Academy sponsors are always shown (or gossiped about) as brainwashed villains, their motives are always plainly nasty and self-serving. Based on an initial scene where an anti-Academy swastika graffiti is properly tagged: “Peacekeepers or occupiers?” we know exactly how we’re supposed to feel about the Academy. In ambiguous rhetoric like “As long as we have one piece of land, they will always come for us,” we can sense Goulet’s unmitigated hatred for these straw men fascists.
It’ll only be a matter of time before Victoria (Birva Pandya), a fellow Academy applicant, demonstrates to Waseese why even evil individuals who look like you can’t be trusted. Given how little we know about Victoria outside her status as a person of color, that’s a loaded and simply insulting concept. However, a scapegoat is unavoidably required to progress the film’s flimsy plot, so a few supporting characters step up to the plate. Most of the trouble stems from the fact that you probably already know who they are.
Because so much of “Night Raiders” is based on quick assumptions, it’s all too easy to nod along with the obvious connotations without ever actually connecting with the symbolism. Through a series of drab chases and set pieces, we lurch from one insipid fight to the next, the majority of which look and sound like they were put together by the film’s tired on-camera subjects. While this type of faint revolt yarn appears to have been written with a broad readership in mind, there’s nothing here that’s culturally or emotionally particular enough to merit our emotional engagement.
Given how empathetic Niska and Waseese appear to be, Niska and Waseese’s yearning for acceptance is especially distressing. It’s difficult to envision anyone feeling fully at ease in a world where everyone looks, talks, and acts the same way—even mistaken viewers who sympathize with the Jingos. But that’s exactly the kind of grim, cookie-cutter future that “Night Raiders” foreshadows: heroes are heroic because they go after the correct bad guys (mainly drones), and villains are terrible because they’re either too weak or insensitive to fight the true enemy. I wanted to be invested in the world of “Night Raiders,” but Niska and her daughter never seemed to reveal more about themselves than their typical conduct suggested.