Official selection of the 2020 AFI Fest
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD— 3 STARS
LESSON #1: WHAT WOMEN ARE CAPABLE OF— At the tipping point in Shadow in the Cloud when action becomes necessary to confront mounting threats, it is a lone woman surrounded by chauvinistic men that doubtlessly steps up above all others. Pushed to fight or flight, she’s going nowhere and her battle cries are “You’ll see what I’m capable of!” and “You don’t understand how far I will go!” Fellas, be afraid. Don’t dare cross a determined woman, no matter their size, age, or profession. They have outright toughness most cannot fathom.
That lone woman is flight officer Maude Garrett, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, and she is exponential girlpower, especially for a story set during a World War II era of “dames,” “broads,” and “tarts.” The threats in question are multifaceted, from belittling misogyny to Japanese bullets and, as the movie’s title suggests, a creepy mystery in between. Brazen and bonkers at every turn, director Roseanne Liang has made an action film that she defines as “stylistic feminine savagery.” Hot damn, is she ever right!
On a stormy 1943 night at a New Zealand air base, Maude has drawn up falsified orders from the top brass and smuggled a firearm to join the flight crew of “The Fool’s Errand” B-17 bomber shortly before takeoff on a supply delivery mission to Samoa. Her papers insist that the radio bag she’s carrying remains strictly unopened and protected at all cost. Maude’s presence brings out horndog talk of tongue-wagging innuendo and rancorous opposition among the crew, led by the stern Captain John Reeves (Callan Mulvey of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) in the pilot’s seat. She is relegated to the “sperry” ball turret while Staff Sergeant Walter Quaid (Hunter Killer’s Taylor John Smith) is entrusted to guard the bag.
LESSON #2: LISTEN TO THE GIRL— Stuck in her clanky underbelly bucket-of-bolts perch defending herself over the coms to obstinate pains in the ass, the mood changes when Maude spots a few things afoot outside the plane among the wiggles and shimmies of bumpy air travel (crafted by Guns Akimbo supervising sound editor Nick Buckton). The first are glimpses of tailing Japanese reconnaissance that are brushed aside by the crew to be impossible as far south as they are from the active Pacific theater. The second is more animalistic in nature when it’s described as a large winged rat meddling on the wing. That report brings out dismissive laughs instead of heeded warnings.
LESSON #3: THE FOLKLORE OF GREMLINS— The crew is cackling because they’ve been fed zany workplace PSAs (like one in the movie recreated Mukdaddy animation design lead Tim Evans that telegraphs the nuisance to come) and posters for years urging upstanding morale-boosting diligence to their airborne handiwork to prevent “gremlins” from causing malfunctions. Akin to a mix between mischievous leprechauns and the Big Bad Wolf, this was real lore born from World War II that would later be characterized and popularized by author Roald Dahl, a former airman himself.
Lifted from legend by Stephen Unterfranz’s visual effects team at WETA Digital as a canny critter and foreboding little adversary for cinematic delight, that is precisely the mythic menace more dangerous than the Japs that Maude finds herself staring down. The aerial ruckus that follows is a rowdy whirl propelled by Triple Frontier stunt coordinator Tim Wong and orchestrated by the throbbing electronica pulse of music from Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper and The Black Quartet.
The action is entirely centered on Chloë Grace Moretz’s provoked lady-of-action and the young actress barrels headlong into this kinetic chiller. Cinematographer Kit Fraser‘s twisting camera rarely leaves the feminine mettle of her appropriately imperfect heroine. Equal to the actress herself, Maude is a scrappy individual with a flawed complexity that swings the nature-versus-nurture pendulum like a battle axe.
Though Moretz’s performance may be hiding in a little indie hoping for a wider audience in a big streaming pond, count this role as a new and worthy addition to fem action canon next to the Furiosas and Sarah Connors of screen history. She’s that tenacious. Fittingly, Shadow in the Cloud signs off as a tribute to the female airman of WWII, complete with archival footage compiled by Pearl Lieberman, giving the genre romp a higher level of dignity than purely escapist thrills.
Between a soap opera-level subplot and plenty of ignored physics, oodles of Shadow in the Cloud are as preposterous as the beasties themselves, but that’s the entertaining intention laid on thick. Plenty of risks and snares will have you agape and squeezing that couch armrest just fine. Though the controversial (and rewritten) Max Landis retains a screenplay credit, the unfailing maniacal mind behind this bloody escapade is filmmaker Roseanne Liang, helming her second feature film and first in nine years. Speaking at the 2020 AFI Fest where her film played stateside, she’s looking to do Hollywood action films. Shit, if this is the loud Harley she can make with mere pennies and training wheels, imagine larger and take notice. Like her voracious main character, let’s see what she too is capable of.