Shadow In The Cloud ‘s cold open is a colorful blast of retro kitsch, a cartoon PSA for airmen that defines gremlins as little more than a military folktale, a mythical monster built on the mundane reality of human error. The cheerfully hyperbolic tone feels correct, an effective callback to the scare tactics and expository broadcasts that litter the annals of B cinema. Pulp (and obvious plot point) expectations duly set, there’s a post credits cut to a dark and stormy night on a WWII era Allied airfield.
Flight Officer Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) has last minute orders to board a B-17 named “The Fool’s Errand”, and guard a mysterious, highly confidential package that she is carrying with her. Captain Reeves (Callan Mulvey) is openly suspicious, while the rest of the crew begins a torrent of cat calls, wolf whistles and sexist slights disguised as jokes. She’s called every demeaning diminutive in the book, and it takes the documents she’s carrying and the threat of a court martial before they even half listen to a word she says.
Only Staff Sergeant Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith) shows even a morsel of basic humanity, offering to guard the package before the rest of the crew violently dumps her into the plane’s lower gun turret for her “safety” during takeoff. Locked inside the transparent turret, her only connection to the rest of the plane is via radio, which is a barrage of more misogynistic chatter placing her at the center of the various crew members’ sexual fantasies. When they realize she can hear them, it’s passed off as a compliment.
If there is any section of the film that works, its this one, and the next hour of runtime is essentially a solo showcase for Chloë Grace Moretz, having to convey a lot without the benefit of much room for physicality or anything to play off of other than the disembodied voices of the crew. Director Roseanne Liang’s camera stays tight at odd angles and shadowy corners, adding visual tension to Maude’s rising frustration at being impeded at every possible turn.
The crew ignores her qualifications as both an engineer and a pilot, and refuse her requests for updates on the safe status of the package. They also dismiss her sightings of both a mysterious creature on the wing, and an enemy fighter approaching.
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Her dispatches are again brushed off as the ravings of a hysterical female unfit for combat. In a final show of chauvinist obstinacy, they cut off communication entirely, leaving Officer Garrett alone in the dark. This entire section of the film feels like an old time radio drama mixed with the Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”. All of the vintage sheen is effectively used to make a pointed commentary on the importance of believing and listening to women.
Shadow In The Cloud went through a arduous series of rewrites in an attempt to scrub the seeping stain of original screenwriter Max Landis’ sexual misconduct allegations, with director Roseanne Liang credited as a cowriter for the revisions. It’s hard not to question how much of the original script was retained, or the wisdom of leaning so heavily on a cultural landmark television episode that ended in several tragic deaths the last time a Landis attempted to adapt it for the big screen. In any case, Shadow In The Cloud starts to fall apart at roughly the halfway mark, and the patchwork nature of its creation starts to split at the seams.
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Officer Garrett has been shown to be confident, capable and ready for anything, even a literal monster. Her character plays like a feminist update on the derring do sorts that populated the pulp novels and adventure serials of the 30s and 40s. When the film finally reveals the true nature of Maude’s mission and the contents of her top secret package, it occurs in a weepy, melodramatic monolog straight out of what 40s Hollywood would have dismissively called a ‘women’s picture’.
It’s absolutely the most period accurate thing in the whole film, in the worst possible way. By keeping Garrett’s motivation firmly rooted in the home and hearth sphere, a notion that wouldn’t have offended matrons in the era of the Hays Code, any genuine emotional heft to the movie’s earlier feminist themes is kneecapped by a hefty dose of missed opportunity and tired trope.
Having ground the plot to a halt for ten minutes, Shadow In The Cloud remembers it is supposedly a monster movie, and lets Officer Garrett out of the turret. It then tosses all of the moods and textures that came before out of the cargo hold, as well as any pretensions of being even a costume closet sort of period piece. Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s score is too 80s nostalgia heavy to begin with, and in the film’s final third, the incongruous electro pop is turned up to 11, a bunch of 1940’s flying aces use modern slang like “shoot your shot” without the slightest bit of irony, and video game ragdoll physics rule the day.
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The crew is never fleshed out beyond their macho posturing, and the big reveal telegraphs which characters will survive, so the onslaught of danger from both enemy forces and a renegade gremlin lacks any credible threat. This is exacerbated by Officer Garrett suddenly becoming a woman of superhuman strength and endurance. She climbs across the bottom of a flying at full speed B-17 with nothing more than her bare hands, and a several thousand foot drop into the epicenter of an explosion barely leaves a scratch.
Roseanne Liang has a solid talent for interesting angles and creative framing, and keeps the limited environment of the plane from becoming visually monotonous. However, the effects budget was obviously quite low, and both the gremlin itself and the action sequences look very cheap. Neither can stand up to the broad daylight scrutiny the back half of the film requires. For all of the elements nicked from the Twilight Zone, they missed the masterstroke of how much more effective cheap effects can be when surrounded in shadow and only glimpsed sparingly.
There’s potential for both entertainment and incisive feminist critique in all three of Shadow In The Cloud‘s main plot threads. Be it a radio serial style chamber drama, a romantic melodrama about the double standards and mixed messaging female soldiers received, or a cheerfully anachronistic action adventure, the film would have benefitted greatly from a stronger commitment to any one consistent idea.
As it stands, the film is an exquisite corpse of mismatched ideas and varying tones that never quite gel. Shadow In The Cloud takes itself far too seriously to read as intentional camp, and the plot is too shoddily crafted to carry dramatic weight. The goodwill of the film’s first half is quickly squandered in an intelligence insulting mess of increasing improbabilities that trades in a genuine feminist message for a pile of shallow female empowerment cliches that feels like the cinematic equivalent of buying a cheap “Girl Power” tee shirt from a mall-bound Spencer’s Gifts and calling it a day. No 83 minute film should even have the time to feel like this much of a slog.
Roseanne Liang shows some genuine visual panache for action sequences despite the film’s budgetary limitations, and while the plot doesn’t do any of the performers justice, Chloë Grace Moretz does a hell of a lot with the rather tattered tapestry she’s handed. Both deserved better than this strained attempt at putting out the dumpster fire of Max Landis’ screenwriting career. Of all of the dangers that Shadow In The Cloud presents, saddling two obviously talented women with saving such glaringly weak source material is the biggest horror of all.
Wicked Rating: 4/10
Director: Roseanne Liang
Writers: Max Landis, Roseanne Liang
Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale
Release Date: January 1, 2021 (Theatrical, VOD and Digital)
Studio/Production Company: Four Knights Film, Rhea Films
Length: 83 minutes