Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud was destined to be a mess, but it’s such a brazen mash-up of genres that you can’t help but be impressed by it.
There’s something to be said for bonkers genre movies that seem to make a conscious effort to be nuttier than a squirrel’s fart, and that’s the best way to describe Shadow in the Cloud, an airborne feminist empowerment vehicle for Chloe Grace Moretz that’s also a period chamber piece, a WWII-era dogfight thriller, and a monster movie. Even then it isn’t content. When was the last time you saw a creature-feature about gremlins, of all things, much less those that the film warns you about in a vintage PSA cartoon?
Right from the opening, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be a consistent piece of work. Moretz’s Maude Garrett, armed with a revolver, a secretive suitcase, and an English accent, looks like she belongs aboard an Allied warplane, but once she’s on “The Fool’s Errand”, she’s treated as an imposter. The men – all serviceable and totally depth-averse, with notable appearances from Taylor John Smith as the sympathetic Quaid and a happy-to-be-there Nick Robinson as a smiley gunner – are horrified to find a “dame” among them, and take the first opportunity to banter about how she’s “hotter than the devil’s d*ck” on the radio. When they realize she’s listening, they don’t seem to mind.
Immediately confined to the claustrophobic turret of the B-17 Flying Fortress aboard which almost the entire movie is set, it seems like Maude is also confined to a film about sexism, with Moretz, impressively stoic, cast as the woman in a man’s world, her obvious injuries ignored and her secret mission laughingly dismissed. A good chunk of the first act is Moretz being shot in close-up in the cramped space, reacting to the grim treatment of the men above her, holding her own but giving little away.
Once the gremlins arrive, Shadow in the Cloud shifts a little, more resembling that horror subgenre in which a woman is convinced awful things are happening but can’t convince anyone else they’re real, which The Invisible Man expertly reinvigorated last year. Maude is treated as delusional, and she’s forced to awkwardly explain the commotion in the turret and why she discharged her firearm, which she wasn’t supposed to have in the first place. How long, we wonder, is this going to go on? As it turns out, not long at all, since the lean runtime of 83 minutes still has plenty of plot and action to churn through, including revealing what Maude’s hiding in her suitcase, and depicting what happens when a crew of useless men has to put their lives in the hands of the woman they couldn’t wait to objectify and dismiss.
It only takes a little while of Maude fighting both the grim realities of toxic masculine attitudes and subcultures and the outlandish, skinless monstrosities that besiege the plane to figure out that one’s probably a metaphor for the other. Amongst all that, a largely go-nowhere subplot about Japanese fighter planes feels like overkill, or perhaps even a joke to see just how much the script – by director Roseanne Liang and co-writer Max Landis – can accommodate. Each horror would have been enough on its own. Taken all together, the effect is of a deliberately over-the-top experiment to blend as many subgenres – and flout as many laws of physics – as possible.
That all this works at all is a minor miracle, but it does so on the strength of an excellent performance from Moretz, who nails both the emotion and physicality of a steely action-hero thoroughly sick of unearned mistreatment and clever direction from Liang, who can build small-scale dread and paranoia just as capably as gonzo set-pieces. Ultimately, Shadow in the Cloud is so proudly ridiculous that you can’t help but like and respect it, perfectly willing to be swept along for the bumpy ride.