Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Vertical Entertainment and Redbox Entertainment will release the film in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, January 1.
Built around enough wild concepts that it sounds a bit like a Hollywood pitch meeting gone seriously off the rails — it’s a creature feature! set on a World War II B-17! filled with misogynist soldiers! and the star is a badass woman! the soundtrack is synth-heavy! — the craziest part about Roseanne Liang’s nutso “Shadow in the Cloud” is that she very nearly pulls the whole thing off. Bolstered by a go-for-broke performance by star Chloë Grace Moretz and an energy that never relents (even in the face of things like “logic” and “physics” and “common sense”), “Shadow in the Cloud” is the most bonkers mash-up of monster movie and World War II drama since, well, at least this year. (The sub-genre is fertile, to put it mildly.)
What Liang and Moretz inject into it, however, is a feminist-leaning freshness that does feel original, even in such a crowded field. Audiences willing and able to lean into its special brand of wacky horror will likely enjoy it best (once you accept the possibility of flying gremlins, it’s easy to imagine that the rest will go down smoothly too), but Liang also keeps a steady tension running throughout its slim 83 minute running time that should appeal to even hardened horror and action fans.
Opening with a zippy animation meant to both introduce and discredit the possibility that gremlins — really, gremlins — are to blame for malfunctions on the Allied Air Forces’ fleet, Liang’s film makes it clear early on that it’s operating on its own wavelength. And that’s before it kicks into the opening credits, which hint at both war film darkness (it’s August 1943) and a cheeky bent towards genre movie fun (the score feels ripped out of an ’80s slasher film). At the center of it all is Maude Garrett, a British flight officer (yes, civilian women did serve in the war, though the fact that Maude isn’t a “real” solider will become a massive bone of contention throughout the film) zipping her way onto a jittery B-17.
Something is clearly amiss as Maude arrives to board “The Fool’s Errand,” a knocked-about bomber about to set off on a sudden nighttime supply drop. Through the mist and the fog, the plane appears, shot with the same reverence and fear Michael Bay applied to his Transformers (no, really). No one on the plane wants her on their trip — well, maybe one person does — and the fact that’s she’s “a dame, a broad, a girl!” doesn’t help matters, and neither does the radio bag she clutches to her chest, and will only explain away as being part of her top secret mission. While most of the male supporting stars melt into each other, turns from Nick Robinson, Taylor John Smith, and Callan Mulvey (as a compelling captain) manage to stand out.
Shoved into the rickety ball turret in the plane’s belly and subjected to endless rabble and misogynistic chatter over the radio, Maude acclimates quickly. For its lean first act, “Shadow in the Cloud” cleverly combines both the liveliness of a radio play (Maude and the audience get to know the soldiers up top by listening to them yammer away on their comms) and the claustrophobia of a single-location-set drama. Maude may be alone, but her vantage point affords her some unique views, and soon she’s trying to shut up the loudmouthed men above her, all the better to get them to recognize that two very different threats are taking aim at The Fool’s Errand.
First, there’s the Japanese plan (which isn’t alone) and then there’s the gremlin (he’s not alone either), a wacky combo of very real enemy and B-movie insanity that serve to keep “Shadow in the Cloud” zipping right along. Liang’s ability to keep the tension taut, along with Moretz’s winking ability to do just about anything, sell even the film’s sharpest turns, and the film moves and shifts between genres with all the speed of a fighter jet. Part creature feature, part war-is-hell nightmare, and entirely dedicated to cutting down the misogynist jerks who populate it, there’s enough giddy fun to power “Shadow in the Cloud” through just about anything.
But even this midnight movie has some truly unexpected surprises left to throw at its audience, and good luck guessing just what’s in Maude’s bag (and why this mission really is so top secret). The revelation doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of what’s come before, but it does serve to throw Maude into even sharper relief, allowing Moretz, who long ago proved her superhero bonafides, to add a human touch to a character who often feels invincible. As the action ratchets up (and the quality of anything shot in front of a green screen ratchets way down), “Shadow in the Cloud” stops being silly fun, a choice mostly saved by Moretz’s strong performance, game for any instance or emotion.
Even before it was made, the film was the subject of some controversy, when co-writer Max Landis was accused of several instances of sexual misconduct. The film was rewritten numerous times before it was shot — Moretz herself shared in a 2019 interview that the production team had “completely distanced ourselves from him” — and while it’s only Liang’s name that appears on the film’s IMDb page, Landis is credited in the film’s closing crawl.
While it’s impossible to know if it was Landis or Liang who penned lines like “she’s got one of those mouths you could just fuck,” the film works up enough vivid feminist energy to almost forgive whoever fired off that banger. It’s certainly got enough firepower to prove that Liang and Moretz are more than able to bring this insane feminist adventure in for a smooth landing.
“Shadow in the Cloud” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
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