Review – Shadow in the Cloud (2020)
Director: Roseanne Liang
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll, Joe Witkowski
When approaching a patently absurd film like Shadow in the Cloud,rather than asking whether or not it is going be good, the better question is whether or not it is going to be the right kind of stupid. Because there is a right kind of stupid. We enjoy different films in different ways. While some want us to lean in and immerse ourselves empathetically, presenting us with believable scenarios and relatable characters, others need us to sit back and embrace the fiction. When a film with an incredible, silly premise thinks it is the former it can be tiresome and disengaging. But when it possesses the self-awareness to know it is the latter, to wink at its audience, allowing filmmakers and audience alike to embrace the absurdity, then the stupid can become sublime. It’s a balance that the Fast and Furious franchise managed to find by its fifth instalment, and one that the genre-bending Shadow in the Cloud nails instantly.
The B-17 bomber, ‘The Fool’s Errand,’ is ready to take off from Auckland Allied Air Base when Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Flight Officer Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) unexpectedly shows up, demanding to be let aboard. She holds top secret orders from their superior and a mysterious package, the contents of which are highly classified. Captain Reeves (Callan Mulvey) and his all-male crew none too happy about this female tagalong, and make their feelings clear to her. But Maude is not the only uninvited guest on this mission. As The Fool’s Errand flies over the Pacific, she spots a large, bat-like gremlin attacking one of their engines. But will anyone believe her before it is too late?
Shadow in the Clouds has big B-movie energy. There is no part of this film that is trying to be credible or taken seriously. You need to apply Fast and Furious logic to the unfolding events of this story, and as soon as you get on the same wavelength you are in for Fast and Furious fun. Juxtaposing a 1940s wartime setting with Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s electronic, synthesiser-heavy score, director Roseanne Liang positions us from the outset to approach this film not as a traditional war movie, but from a sci-fi, mystery headspace. In only her second feature film, Liang clearly knows exactly what this movie is, and because of that is able to execute it brilliantly, demonstrating a really sure hand.
Liang employs some really interesting storytelling choices, the most prominent of which is the near exclusive use of Maude’s point of view. With the unwelcoming crew confining her to the gun turret below the plane, Liang keeps us with Maude. The radio is her and our only means of knowing what is going on in the rest of the plane and what other characters are thinking. In this regard Shadow in the Cloud is effectively Locke in the sky with monsters. This means that Moretz, constantly in close-up or mid-shot, carries the sort of performance burden you usually only see in arthouse dramas, but really makes it work in this horror/mystery setting.
From a screenplay originally by Max Landis but significantly reworked by Liang, Shadow in the Cloud continually surprises. Starting with a period-style sky safety animation that dismisses all talk of gremlins in planes as merely cover for lazy pilots and mechanics, the fear is that it neutralises the film’s big reveal. And to an extent this is true, as the first sight of the gremlin is a shock without being a surprise. This is a misdirect, however, as the real surprises in the unfolding narrative are going to come from elsewhere. While our proximity to Maude aligns us with her, when questions start to emerge about her we then find ourselves forced to question some of our assumptions.
Importantly, embracing its own absurdity also doesn’t prevent Shadow in the Cloud from having something to say. It simply informs the way that is goes about saying it. This film evolves into a patriarchy-crushing, feminist roar that is fittingly about as subtle as a sledgehammer in its messaging. From the moment Maude arrives on the plane she is labelled ‘dame,’ ‘broad,’ ‘doll.’ Her qualifications are questioned and her concerns dismissed as hysteria, but we are never in any doubt that it is only a matter of time before these swamp dwellers will be put in their place and the full extent of her capabilities is shown. Owning its pulpy, B-movie tone allows Shadow in the Cloud to make its feminist point quite effectively without getting too earnest. It is a feminist statement intended to make you stand up and cheer rather than think and nod, and while it would be too much of a spoiler to describe it here, the film ends with an act of female strength that I have never seen as the conclusion to an action set piece.
Shadow in the Cloud is immensely satisfying, brilliantly executed, and sublimely stupid, pulpy fun. With some really cool storytelling choices, genuinely surprising twists and high-five-the-person-next-to-you action beats, if you give yourself over to it it will leave you buzzing.
Review by Duncan McLean
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