Shadow in the Cloud

2020 | R | starring Chloe Grace Moretz | directed by Roseanne Liang | 1 hr 23 mins |

On a rainy night in the middle of World War II, a female pilot (Chloe Grace Moretz), hitches a ride on The Fool’s Errand, a bomber heading around Japanese airspace, with top secret cargo. Confined to the lower turret, Garrett deals with the suspicions of the crew until she notices an even more dangerous stowaway – a gremlin on the wing of the aircraft slowly tearing the plane apart.

Yes, Shadow in the Cloud is the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and the Richard Mathison short story it’s based on, dropped into a 40s era war film. Except it’s not really a war film either, it’s more of a hyper stylized comic book movie. Written by Max Landis and re-written by director Roseanne Liang, the movie is all over the show, a garish, absurd cocktail of mismatched tones and intentions. It’s a true Max Landis (Chronicle, Bright) script through and through with his two biggest claims to fame put front and center: 1) riding his father’s coattails (as horror director John Landis directed the movie adaptation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with infamously horrific results) and 2) harassing women while pretending the real issue is society at large and obsessively diminishing Star Wars female action heroes. Liang does the film no favors slap-dashing it all together. From it’s pretentious title to it’s closing credit WW2 newsreel footage, this movie is so full of it’s own sense of self importance that there is no way to brush it aside as just B-movie fun. I hated it.

For a good portion of the running time, Shadow in the Cloud plays out like a one-man chamber film carried by Moretz. Like Buried or Alejandra Aja’s recent Oxygen, we sit with her in a confined space and watch her increasingly frantic attempts to get the men in the plane to believe her. Liang opens this up a bit visually giving us effective little flashes of what Garret is imagining – most effectively is a introductory curtain call where we see the guys against black so we can put a face to the voices on the radio.

Shadow is aggressively politically correct. Not feminist, not starring a strong female lead. Cartoonishly over-the-top in it’s depiction of Moretz as an unstoppable action hero. It’s as if Liang looked at the gender-flip reboots of Ghostbusters and Charlie’s Angels and concluded they were too subtle. Whether it’s men (like John Wick or Liam Neeson in Taken or Bob Odenkirk in Nobody) or women (like Angelina Jolie in Salt or Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde), your typical action hero is given a backstory or an explanation why they can perform outrageous feats of skill and strength. Shadow doesn’t bother with that. She’s female and she’s a mom. That’s all we get. It’s embarrassing, pandering, garbage.

Garrett is more capable then any man on that plane and spends the first half of the film being subjected to their sexist taunts over the radio. Taunts I have a hard time believing existed in the 40s – like middle-American boys went to war, became trained soldiers and at the first sight of a women turn into animals who want to check out her “ass”. “Ass”? In a time when they said words like “whammy”? Maybe. Just imagine, for a second, the platoon of guys in Saving Private Ryan encountering a female fighter. The dialog wouldn’t play out like it does here.

The undercurrent to everything in Shadow in the Cloud is that none of it fits together. If you looked at an isolated imagine or a few seconds of it; if you heard the oh-so-trendy synth-pop 80s score, by itself, it would seem colorful, bright, stylish and fun. The problem is that none of those things are working to aid the story. None of them are working to establish a cohesive tone or motif here. It’s too bright and colorful to feel like a war film. It’s too action-oriented to work as a horror film and it spends a solid hour in the gun turret, an art house move if there ever was one, that works against it’s frantic 3rd act. Even little decisions don’t work. At one point when Moretz is hanging upside down on the outside of the plane (yep!) the camera turns so that we see her right-side up. Why, if the whole point of the stunt is that it’s done upside down? A lot of what goes on here seems to have been done because it looks cool and not because it did anything for the story.

To have stuck with this chamber film the entire time would have required more invention and dedication then we can give Shadow. It busts out of it’s chamber in a big way, putting Garrett in insane acrobatic feats of strength. My favorite scene in the movie is it’s most absurd, a physics-bending explosion that sends Garrett rocketing across the sky.

Would a version of this movie that took place entirely in the lower gun turret of a World War 2 bomber have worked? Of course it would have. Would a version of the film work if Garrett was a flawed, interesting, doubtful character and not a superwoman who could beat up a monster with her bare hands? Of course it would have. Would a version of this movie have worked if it was a World War 2 ensemble piece set in the bomber jet proper where the crew had to work together to fight a monster? Yeah, that would have worked too. Just about any other decision would have worked better.

And all of that is beneath the chief problem – the last thing we need is another Gremlin-on-the-wing movie.

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