Director Nyla Innuksuk crafts something unique with Slash/Back, a vibrant, charming alien invasion sci-fi film that’s drenched in Inuit culture.
“Inuit have been hunting for many generations. It is how we survive,” a father tells his daughter at the beginning of Nyla Innuksuk’s Slash/Back, teaching the child about patience and handing her a fishing gun. Six years later, that same girl, Maika (Tasiana Shirley), is a teenager, and she spends her summer hanging out with her friends and dreaming of leaving her hometown of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a hamlet nestled in the mountains “a million miles from anywhere,” with a population of 1481 inhabitants. One day, Maika convinces her best friends, Jesse (Alexis Vincent-Wolfe), Leena (Chelsea Prusky, of Anaana’s Tent) and Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), to sneak out of town for the day. And so, the four girls steal a boat and head to the fjords, joined by Maika’s little sister, Aju (Frankie Vincent-Wolfe), with every intention of spendind the day gossiping and and telling each other scary stories. But their daydreaming is soon interrupted by the arrival of a polar bear – or, at least, that’s what the girls think it is.
We, of course, know better: as well as showing us the girls’ disadventures, writer and director Nyla Innuksuk, co-writer Ryan Cavan (The Secret of Goat) and cinematographer Guy Godfree (Maid) cleverly let us know that an alien invasion is taking place by giving us glimpses of a creature roaming around the Peninsula, ensuring we always know more than the film’s charming protagonists and alerting us of the impending danger. It’s a world that comes alive with bright, saturated colours, where the landscape itself always feels a character of its own, its presence perceived not just in the film’s most ominous, tense scenes but also in the intimate, eerie calm of the ocean and mountains. That is really Slash/Back ‘s bigger strength, especially in the first half of the film, where we are introduced to a world we rarely get to see on the screen and drawn into the lives of its four protagonists (inspired by the director’s own evperience of growing up in Nunavut), without ever forgetting of the danger lurking in plain sight.
Slash/Back certainly does have an intriguing premise, but it’s also flawed when it comes to its horror elements, which are reminiscent not only of classics like The Thing, but also of newer releases like Stranger Things, with which Slash/Back shares not only its teenage protagonists but also the look of the aliens themselves. Even if the sound design (John Loranger, of Boss Level) isn’t always on point, alternating between extremely effective atmospheric cues and loud electronic music that sometimes ruins the mood, the buildup of tension is excellent in the first half of the film, preparing us for a bloody, fun faceoff between four girls who know how to hunt and an alien with the habit of possessing bodies. But, though the battle in question does happen, it’s not as fun as it’s should be, and that’s mainly because not much actually happens in the movie.
The other issue with Slash/Back is with the cast: though its young actors (most of which are newcomers) are doing their best and definitely earn our sympathies throughout the film, it’s also hard to look at them as characters and not as actors reciting lines, which is often an issue with such young performers and unfortunately makes us even less invested in their respective fates.
That said, Slash/Back is still a smart, charming film with a lot of personality, that shines when it embraces the Inuit culture and landscape that inspired it and that tells a poignant story about survival and growing up. Though its sci-fi and horror elements are not as well developed as they could have been and the acting isn’t always convincing, one has to admire what director Nyla Innuksuk and her crew were able to craft with an extremely low budget – an incredibly immersive, vibrant film that is sure to captivate you despite its flaws.
Slash/Back premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 13, 2022 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand. It will be released on Shudder on November 13.