How does one watch a movie like SHADOW IN THE CLOUD? Pretend that the gremlin is Max Landis. This will all make sense by the end of this review. Maybe.
Retooled by writer/director Roseanne Lang, Landis’ influence completely scrubbed from the film (or so we’re told), somehow his misogynistic stink—and a writing credit as required by WGA bylaws—persists. What’s left is a pulpy mess that was razor-close to being just the right side of satire and farcical over-indulgence. Unfortunately, it succumbed to baser instincts.
The roar of an opening scene, pairing eye-popping visuals with a wonderfully anachronistic synth soundtrack, instantly pulled me in. Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) moves with an air of purpose and mystery, clutching a leather satchel and cradling a broken arm. Upon boarding a B-17 Flying Fortress emblazoned with a painting of a pin-up girl, the incredulous all-male crew greets Maude with vitriol. They’re both crude and paranoid, doubting her top secret orders and bristling at her tight-lipped responses to their prodding. She’s banished to the bomber’s ball turret, suspended in a glass cage with no defense or escape from the constant reminder of death below.
It’s a bold choice to put Maude in this precarious and claustrophobic environment for such a sustained period of time, the disembodied voices of the men above pummel us over the comms link they’ve mistakenly left open. This dehumanizing verbal barrage of sexual abuse goes on and on and on. It would feel overwrought if not for Maude’s proportional frustration and anger, and the upsetting reality that this behavior isn’t a relic of the 1940s. It’s a shared experience among women to feel trapped, isolated, demeaned, and burdened with a rage lacking an available outlet
Maude’s position gives her a unique perspective; she’s forced into the unwanted role of REAR WINDOW’s ‘Jeff’ Jefferies or Greek mythology’s Cassandra. No matter how often she reasserts her credentials as a WAAF officer, or her air time as a pilot, her sightings of Japanese aircraft aren’t taken seriously. After Maude observes what appears to be a giant, vampire bat-like creature clinging to the wing of the plane, the men refuse to entertain the possibility of its existence.
Stuck in this pressure cooker scenario, Maude’s carefully crafted veneer—designed to protect her true identity—begins to crack. The moment her accent drops, my mind raced with possibilities: was she an elite operative with a skillset unmatched by anyone else onboard? Was she a double (or even a triple?) agent feigning a blown cover to give the men a false sense of security? Given its top-most classification level, what could her satchel possibly contain? The film’s answer to these questions fulfills none of the excitement or intrigue that should accompany them. After the revelation, I shouted, “Oh, come on!”
From this point, SHADOW IN THE CLOUD’s ridiculousness loses the sheen of excitement which granted suspension of disbelief. Seeing Moretz suspended on the undercarriage of an aircraft, clawing her way along chunks of missing fuselage, should arise from the pretext of the character’s professional competence. Can we please have a heroine who’s fueled by something other than Mama Bear instinct? I kept waiting for a feint of recorded wails and gurgles.
What begins as a tense ode to the Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with a feminist twist and left-turns into a delightfully-batshit, last-man-standing scenario, never regains its footing after this misstep. Liang’s protagonist echoes Ellen Ripley. But it would’ve been nice to see more of the Warrant Officer who was hyper-vigilant about quarantine procedures, and not just Newt’s protector.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Shadow in the Cloud has been picked up for US distribution by Vertical Entertainment and Redbox.