By Elias Savada.
A small, fierce gem…. Moretz lets it all out with a thrilling performance.”
This movie reminds me of the intense, claustrophobic approach to air travel that 7500 did earlier this year. For me, Shadow in the Cloud is a more frantic and enjoyable effort. The action moves from present day to World War II, and, instead of flying commercial, most of the mayhem happens in a vintage B-17 bomber. But it’s not just swapping out Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Chloë Grace Moretz (both were in the earthbound rom-com 500 Days of Summer), that makes this New Zealand film more exciting. Moretz’s very desperate and even more determined character kicks ass again (previous time: 2010’s Kick-Ass), even while wedged into the underbelly ball turret of an ailing Flying Fortress.
In a way, this is very theatrical piece (or an in-your-face zoom session, although it was filmed pre-pandemic), seemingly adapted from a stage play. Instead, it’s from a screenplay by the film’s director, Roseanne Liang, and Max Landis. I suspect most of the writing is Landis based on his pedigree (son of director John Landis) and filmography (Chronicle, Bright, as well as creator of BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). I think the ghost of Rod Serling also provided some Twilight Zone inspired input. Landis knows his horror genre and Liang crafts the production into one that is sly, devilish, and spritely.
That’s a mood shift for Liang, a Kiwi native of Chinese descent whose first feature was the charming, self-referential 2005 documentary Banana in a Nutshell, about a wide cultural rift she has with her parent’s strict, traditional approach to family – even after leaving China for a more relaxed home in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s available free with Amazon Prime and features a coda that updates the family’s drama leading up to Liang’s marriage. That surprise hit was followed by My Wedding and Other Secrets, a 2011 fictionalization of the documentary (I haven’t seen that one). Since then, Liang created, wrote, produced, and directed episodes in the 10-minute web series Flat3 and made about a half-dozen shorts.
Taken as a seat-of-your-pants experience, Garrett holds nothing back…. Ever resourceful, she has no limitations on her behavior.”
I’m not sure where the idea for her third feature originated, although Liang has said she likes to take unexpected journeys: “I made Shadow in the Cloud because I wanted to see if I could find that sweet spot between fun, heart and spectacle.” Like her previous films, she also focuses on the empowerment issue. That’s where the forceful Flight Office Maude Garrett (Moretz) arrives at the start of the film, after a cautionary one-minute cartoon made by the Allied Air Forces about keeping the skies safe from the enemy. Careless airmen cause accidents, not imaginary critters such as gremlins. The reference isn’t obscure, actually, as there were two Warner Bros. Bug Bunny cartoons from the era that featured light-hearted variants of the rodent-like fiend: Falling Hare (1943) and Russian Rhapsody (1944), which set up visual gags about these creatures’ propensity for diabolical sabotage. As for the disbelieving crew assembled in the Liang’s airborne drama, they might want to consider that fictional beastie a little more seriously.
Taken as a seat-of-your-pants experience, Garrett holds nothing back as she barrels her way onto a flight in August 1943, sporting credentials and a bravado that would have had any such fraudster sent to the brig. Ever resourceful, she has no limitations on her behavior joining other soldiers (her accent – British? Kiwi? – convinces even them, up to a point). Her sole responsibility involves a confidential carry-on item of extreme importance.
Trouble waits, though. The airplane’s name is one giveaway: The Fool’s Errand. Forget the painting on the plane’s fuselage of a busty brunette atop a grimacing, sharp-toothed bomb. The name refers to a practical joke, usually forcing an impossible task on someone. That fits Garrett’s situation quite nicely, at least as far as the entire, overly misogynistic, male crew seems to believe.
Liang drops other hints like subtle bombs, so a repeat viewing makes those reveals all the more delicious in the film’s brisk exploration of war, horror, and female empowerment, all stirred together in a frothy, quick-paced, pulpy mix.
The plane, heading to Samoa to drop off some transponders, is in for a bumpy ride. Stormy skies, rough crew, malfunctioning hardware, and one nasty stowaway playing havoc on the machinery make for a lean, mean thrill ride. And that dame Garrett, sequestered mostly inside the bottom turret, takes center (and only) stage for more than half of the film’s frantic 82-minute length, made all the more intense with unwelcome arrivals of enemies on several fronts. This wounded woman stays true and strong, playing against the clatter of brutal male tongues flailing against her, like a well-scripted radio drama, heard through her headphones. It’s a bravura performance, intensely edited together by Tom Eagles with a throbbingly, propellor-driven score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper.
As for the men aboard this ill-fated flight, most are lit in an ugly green-red light, although Staff Sergeant Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith) is the only one remotely decent to Garrett. Her background story is revealed when she’s not showcasing her exceptional combat abilities against the encroaching Japanese fighters and the supernatural shadow lurking along the wings. The one false step in the dialogue is a mention of bigfoot, a late 1950s phenomenon.
Shadow in the Cloud is a small, fierce gem. Liang crafts a humdinger of a film, and Moretz lets it all out with a thrilling performance. Oh. What. Fun.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).