A film review by Craig J. Koban January 19, 2021

 

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD jjj

2021, R, 83 mins. 

ChloŽ Grace Moretz as Maude Garrett  /  Nick Robinson as Stu Beckell  /  Beulah Koale as Anton Williams  /  Taylor John Smith as Walter Quaid  /  Callan Mulvey as John Reeves  /  Benedict Wall as Tommy Dorn  /  Joe Witkowski as Bradley Finch  /  Byron Coll as Terrence Taggart

Directed by Roseanne Liang  /  Written by Liang and Max Landis

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD is the kind of film that knows precisely what it is and frequently winks at its audience throughout to let them know that it's in on the gag.  

The film is a spectacularly inane hodgepodge of divergent genres, like the creature feature, the World War II men-on-a-mission thriller, and the female empowerment action picture...and with equal parts of TWILIGHT ZONE mixed in for good measure.  It's the type of lurid grindhouse fare that might have had an audience back in the day for midnight drive-in screenings, but if one looks beyond its pure schlockiness then it becomes easy to admire how nimble footed and well oiled everything is here.  Checking your brain at the door is an absolute requirement with SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, and once you're willing to do so then it becomes quite easy to get lost in its entertaining preposterousness. 

Set in 1943 New Zealand, the film opens by introducing us to an intrepid minded and courageous military woman, Officer Maude (Chloe Grace Moretz), who's holding a very secretive looking package while trying to board "The Fool's Errand," a B-17 bomber that's about to take off.  The crew is made up of a relative motley crew of misogynistic men that don't take kind to a "dame" entering their bird and don't seem to give a damn that she's protecting a package of vital importance to their cause (or so she claims).  Refusing to allow her to stay seated with them in the main sections of the bomber, the deeply sexist grunts force poor Maude to spend a majority of her flight in the plane's lower gun turret, which doesn't altogether make for a comfortable or safe ride for her.  She communicates with the men above her via her headset and radio, but it becomes clear that they don't seem to respect her, nor her place in the military, nor the contents of her package.  To make matters worse, she spots multiple Japanese planes flying in their airspace that seem like they could launch an attack at any moment.  The men's combined chauvinism and the prospect of enemy attacks are not Maude's biggest fears, though.  Without any explanation or warning, a bat-like gremlin attaches itself to the plane outside and tries to break in.  The servicemen above Maude in the safety of their cabin, though, don't buy her claims of a monster trying to claw its way through the gun turret.  With her only exit handle broken to escape, Maude is on her own against this devilish creature. 

 

 

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD is directed with spunky ingenuity by Roseanne Liang, and the script by her and Max Landis (writer of CHRONICLE) has a field day with the routinely fine first act of the picture, which sets up not only the main hero's battle of wills against her fellow male officers, but it also does a good job of embellishing the claustrophobic turret environment that becomes her tight home for a majority of the film's running time.  Even though the male characters are introduced quickly in the story and mostly kept off camera, Liang gets a lot of mileage out of keeping SHADOW IN THE CLOUD within its small, one location setting (so to speak), which really allows for the dialogue to flesh out power struggles at play here.  Pretty much from the beginning of the film Maude is trapped in the turret, and when not she isn't fending for her life from the Japanese and that vile gremlin she faces an unrelentingly toxic barrage of hurtful insults from the men.  A majority of the film delves into Maude - a decorated servicewomen - having to defend her military cred and worthiness to an aggressively macho team that can only relate to her via cheap objectification.  In many ways, Maude is fighting multiple wars against many adversaries. 

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD does make decent strides (that pay off handsomely later) to not paint Maude as a helpless victim, but rather as a resilient, tough minded, and fully capable of defending herself hero that simply doesn't put up with any crap from anyone (or any creature).  And it shouldn't really surprise anyone how plausible Moretz is as a bona fide action hero (remember her work in both KICK ASS films?), and she's thanklessly good at playing up to her role's raw physicality while also showing her desperation in demonstrating that she's just as good (if not better) than any of her male colleagues in any wartime pressure situation.  And Moretz plays the part with commendable straightness, which helps make her all the more relatable despite all the wanton and escalating madness that surrounds her and the narrative progresses.  For a majority of SHADOW IN THE CLOUD it's essentially a one-woman picture and Moretz has to do much of the film's heavy performance lifting to sell her dire situation, and she does so admirably.  One could easily claim that the film doesn't think highly in terms of developing its male characters as anything more than one-note masochistic stooges, but SHADOW IN THE CLOUD is not about them or their plight; it's about women like Maude that - in real life, no doubt - had to fight three times harder than any man to gain a sense of legitimacy in the armed forces during the era in question. 

But, yes, this is also a work of pure fantasy about a monster that wants to eat its way through the plane and then thoroughly snack on every human being in it.  For the most part, the genre mishmashing contained here really works because of its sheer, never look back audacity.  SHADOW IN THE CLOUD tries to be an WWII thriller highlighting the female experience in combat while also being an outrageous monster mash picture, and for some this marriage might be hard to swallow (it's tough to be both a social commentary piece and a pulpy B-movie with a low rent vibe).  Not all of the film flows together as smoothly as it wants to, but Liang does an admirable job of committing to the sheer insanity of the premise and, well, just goes for it.  And some of the action set pieces (some small scale, whereas others with an ambitious largeness considering the limited budget and resources) pack a reasonable wallop, not to mention that the anachronistic synth heavy music score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper is a real  hoot because it never tries to be era congruent, but rather hums with a modern sensibility that reiterates the infectious kitchen sink nature of the piece.  To be fair, some may have difficult taking in some of the film's more distracting plot twists and a few of - shall we say - logic and gravity defying action scenes showing Maude and her prized package hanging outside of the bomber in ways that slap in the face of the laws of physics.  SHADOW IN THE CLOUD dials up the sheer ridiculousness to level 11 in its final act, and at that point you're either with this film...or simply not.   

I found myself with it, for the most part.  I appreciated that this film was a very brisk 80-plus minutes, which may have something to do with it not being very plot heavy (some could accurately claim that the film is more of a series of vignettes strapped together to make a feature length product), but I think it has more to do with the relative skill and polish that Liang brings to the proceedings.  SHADOW IN THE CLOUD really zips by at a fairly breakneck pace and never overstays its welcome.  Plus, Moretz brings ample tenacity and presence to a role that simply wouldn't have worked with the wrong actress at the helm.  And Maude is an empathetic hero, to be sure, for the way she has to deal with the onslaught of accusations from her male colleagues that think she's hysterical or out of her mind when she really isn't, which certainly still has an unsavory timeliness in today's gender dynamics in work cultures.  And seeing Maude unleash all of her fury to try to save the day in the film's final act is pretty damn satisfying.   She has her way with that damn gremlin and the ineffectualness of the men around her with a never-look-back, take charge gumption.   SHADOW IN THE CLOUD is dumber than a bag of hammers in its retrograde trashiness, but it's a frantically paced, well crafted, and decently acted piece of war pulp fiction with a heavy added dosage of sinister oddness.  And maybe...just maybe...I needed this dosage of aggressive minded silliness to begin the new calendar movie year after the previous several months we all just went through.  

Just don't forget to claim and re-insert your brain post-screening. 

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