AFI FEST 2020 REVIEW! Max Landis – son of horror maestro, John – has had a patchy screenwriting career. It began on a high note with the ridiculously fun and bonkers superhero send-up, Chronicle, then slid downward with each successive stab at that perfect “fun/ bonkers” balance. American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, Mr. Right, and Will Smith’s Netflix movie, Bright, all had their moments but ultimately felt strained and failed to cohere fully. Now, with the help of first-time feature co-writer and director, Roseanne Liang, he comes close to nailing the gleeful equilibrium of “tense” and “goofy” with the claustrophobic, imbecilic, ambitious, inventive, far-fetched pro-feminist parable/WWII period piece/contained horror-action hybrid, Shadow in the Cloud.
Yes, Liang and Landis’s film manages the feat of being all of those things, and the fact that it zips along, amounting to a succinct 75 minutes (sans credits), certainly makes it eminently watchable. While it’s chock-full of clichés and elements you’ll recognize from other, better features (and a certain Twilight Zone episode), you’ve never quite seen anything like Shadow in the Cloud. It’s no Chronicle, but it’s markedly better than anything Landis has written since (perhaps thanks to the grace of Liang’s penmanship). The badass Chloë Grace Moretz in the lead goes a long way in making the crazy concoction work.
The tongue-in-cheek tone is established from the get-go, as a pre-credit cartoon – stylized to resemble WWII infomercials – warns pilots of the perils of encountering airborne gremlins while engaging in combat. A wonderfully anachronistic warped-synth score wails as we meet the wise-beyond-her-years flight officer, Maude Garrett (Moretz), who gets commissioned to carry a top-secret package in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
“…perils of encountering airborne gremlins while engaging in combat.”
The plane resembles a pigsty, filled to the brink with sexist, crude men whose moral compasses have long since shattered in battle. The only one who seems to have grasped on to a modicum of humanity is Sgt. Quaid (Taylor John Smith); the rest instantly bash Maude, incredulous that a woman would even be allowed onboard (“Since when did we become Noah’s Ark?”).
After entrusting her ultra-confidential package to Quaid, Maude has no choice but to be thrust into a tiny hatch, a turret on the belly of the plane, from which she gets an almost-360° view of the sky. When she puts on the headset, Maude’s subjected to listening to the chauvinist swine exchanging increasingly offensive remarks about her (“I cannot believe there was a pu*sy that close to me and I did not even get a look! That’s a real stealthy pu*sy, fellas”). Even when Maude lets them know that she’s been listening in, the men falter for a mere moment before focusing on her (“I can give you a big head anytime, sweetheart”).
So when Maude spots the titular shadow on the plane’s wing, they don’t believe her, leaving her to fend for herself. As enemy planes and, yes, airborne gremlins attack, the men conclude that “whatever’s in that package is what’s causing the failures on this plane.” Despite Maude’s pleas, they open it. To spoil what’s inside – and the consequent twists and turns – would be a severe disservice to the film. Your enjoyment of Shadow in the Cloud from this point on is directly proportional to your tolerance for highly implausible twists, topped by even more implausible feats of human endurance and strength.
"…could have been a demented allegory about female empowerment; instead, it's just demented..."