Shadow in the Cloud, 2020.
Directed by Roseanne Liang.
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale and Taylor John Smith.
In the throes of World War II, Captain Maude Garrett joins the all-male crew of a B-17 bomber with a top-secret package. Caught off guard by the presence of a woman on a military flight, the crew tests Maude’s every move. Just as her quick wit is winning them over, strange happenings and holes in her backstory incite paranoia surrounding her true mission. But this crew has more to fear…lurking in the shadows, something sinister is tearing at the heart of the plane. Trapped between an oncoming air ambush and an evil lurking within, Maude must push beyond her limits to save the hapless crew and protect her mysterious cargo.
Shadow in the Cloud can be easily divided into two mismatched halves. There’s the first one, which is a taut thriller, functioning as a wonderful showcase for its director Roseanne Liang and gifted lead Chloë Grace Moretz. And then there’s the second: an absurd schlockfest that (although entertaining in its own right) is totally incompatible with the 45 minutes that preceded it.
When trying to get to the bottom of why there’s such a huge discrepancy between the two halves, it’s tempting to attribute the weaker chunk to disgraced screenwriter Max Landis. After all, even if you can overlook the recent spate of disturbing character testimonials (that paint a rather ugly picture of his on-set behaviour) and the sheer volume of sexual abuse claims levelled against him, you have to admit he was never that talented to begin with. He just managed to continually fail upwards, thriving as the quintessential benefactor of Hollywood nepotism.
Even before his reputation was stained by all those personal controversies, Landis was just barely coasting by in the industry. Having set a precedent for pitching tremendously dumb ideas (like a Lord of the Rings follow up that was inexplicably situated underwater), his body of work is mainly comprised of forgettable duds that flopped with both critics and moviegoers alike. In fact, excluding the miraculous fluke in Chronicle, he hasn’t been linked to a well-received project in a long, long time.
The point is that all the worst bits of Shadow in the Cloud are wholly consistent with the rest of Landis’ output. After all, the final act carries his signature brand of stupid with the usual tonal lurches, groan worthy twists, and high concept zaniness upon which he built his career. Yet at the same time, we have to take the filmmakers at their word when they claim to have rewritten his original treatment from the ground up. In which case, they either didn’t purge enough of his lunacy from the finished draft, or they simply ended up repeating his errors anyway. And that’s a shame because – until it starts to push your suspension of disbelief beyond its limits – the movie is quite riveting.
The narrative revolves around Maude Garrett (Moretz) – a flight officer from the WAAF – who has been charged with escorting a top secret package across enemy lines. To accomplish this mission, she drops by unannounced at a nearby airfield and boards a plane by the name ‘’The Fool’s Errand’’, much to the chagrin of its all-male crew. Indeed, the men are so exacerbated about being burdened with this ‘’Stuck Up Dame’’, that they corral her into a spherical turret underneath the fuselage, where they hope that she will remain out of their hair.
From within this flimsy plastic ball, Maude is forced to endure the squadron’s incessant mockery, chauvinistic jibes, and lewd fantasies over the radio. What’s more, she’s also got to contend with the fact that her rickety prison is gradually deteriorating at the seams, on account of its loose joins and cracked window. It’s certainly an unenviable situation, one that becomes even more precarious when she notices a fleet of Japanese Zeroes roaming the skies, as well as a fearsome monster that appears to be nesting in the landing gear!
You see, this isn’t a straightforward war drama and there’s actually a supernatural at play. Echoing the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘’Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’’, much of the film is dedicated to Maud’s futile attempts to convince the men that a gremlin has hitched a ride on the wings and is methodically taking them apart, piece by piece. Naturally, they don’t believe her story, chalking it up to feminine hysteria, and so she takes it upon herself to deal with the ghoulish saboteur in a deadly tête-à-tête
Whilst the basic framework is nothing new (we’ve seen at least three other versions of this tale before. Four if you count The Simpsons), there are enough wrinkles here to make it feel unique. For a start, there’s the clever use of period setting – including a pre-titles cartoon that introduces the idea of mischievous gremlins causing aerial malfunctions. Then there is the additional layer of an intriguing espionage subplot, with Maud’s mysterious consignment stirring up hostility amongst the crew of The Fool’s Errand.
Throw in the extra complications posed by the enemy fighters and the claustrophobic Sperry turret setting, and you’ve got an endless reserve of tension. Speaking of which, the film does an excellent job of conveying how frightening it must have been to find yourself cramped into one of those see-through orbs, whilst miles up in the air. In the words of the screenplay, it’s no wonder that ‘’Belly gunners always go crazy […] cooped up in their plastic aquarium[s], hanging over a death drop’’. Honestly, this real-world scenario is probably scarier than the actual creature in this creature-feature. That’s not meant as a criticism by the way, because that the imp is well designed and the effects used to bring it to life are of the typical caliber that you would associate with Weta Digital.
However, the way in which Liang immerses you in the suffocating environment is obviously the film’s greatest strength. You’re with Maude’s every step of the way as she rattles around in her fragile little cage. You share in her distress whenever torrential rainfall pelts against the feeble shell. You wince sympathetically as turbulent weather violently rocks the hull. Meanwhile, the detailed sound mix tunes you into every unnerving creaking noise within earshot, to the point where you’ll want to hit the mute button for some temporary relief.
It’s reminiscent of the visceral space launch sequences in First Man, or how Das Boot made you feel like you were being packed into that oppressive submarine along with its hapless characters. Braving that kind of anguish with a protagonist is a really effective way of getting you to root for them and, like in those other films, it works incredibly well here.
Liang admirably sticks to her guns with the decision as well, refusing to let you leave Maud’s side, other than via a few obligatory exterior shots. As a result, Shadow in the Cloud is almost a one-woman-show for a good portion of its runtime, with the supporting cast being relegated to disembodied voices, chattering away over the comms. Whoever was responsible for writing the dialogue for these radio play scenes did a phenomenal job at holding your interest, despite the fact that most of the excitement is being narrated to you off screen.
The heavily focalised POV allows Moretz to properly flex her dramatic muscles and stretch her abilities further than ever before. Since her early turns in Kick Ass, Let Me In and Hugo, she’s always been an exceedingly charismatic performer, but here the entire weight of the movie is resting squarely on her shoulders and she capably rises to the challenge. In particular, she has to negotiate a tricky balancing act of imbuing Maud with a likeable personality, whilst simultaneously playing her cards very close to the chest, so that we are left guessing as to the true nature of her covert mission. It’s a very nuanced role, but Moretz deftly sells each new facet of the character as it is unveiled. One moment in which she is howling with grief is especially stirring.
The positives don’t stop there. Composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper provides atmospheric synth music backing, the gradual tease of the monster is skillfully handled, and there’s a surprising amount of viscera for gorehounds to enjoy.
Unfortunately, we then hit the aforementioned turning point in terms of quality, and it’s like another director suddenly took the reins. We won’t spoil anything in this review but suffice it to say, there’s an abrupt change in filmmaking style, in tone, and, hell, even in the standard of VFX , that comes completely out of left field. The quiet suspense that defined the first act is completely jettisoned, as Maud escapes from the Sperry turret and participates in one of the most ludicrous set-pieces in recent memory. Showing a profound disregard (nay contempt) for the laws of physics, it’s less like we’re jumping the shark, so much as we are jetpacking over the fucking megalodon. The poor green screen doesn’t help matters either, nor does a nonsensical stunt – involving an explosion – that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.
Credit where credit’s due, none of this is remotely boring. Yet it nevertheless marks a radical departure from what came before. The sequence whiffs of residual Landis, and whilst the film does eventually recover from this OTT silliness, it could and should have been put through to more brutal revisions.
Ultimately, your opinion on Shadow in the Cloud will hinge on how willing you are to forgive the climactic insanity. If you get past the eccentric action and wonky digital compositing, then you’ll likely have a blast. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a somewhat bumpy flight.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★