War by itself is a horrific enough subject for a movie. Add some psychological terror or supernatural distress into the mix, and the result is a paralysing cinematic exploration of combat and hostility. The best horror movies about war are actually metaphors for how these types of large-scale conflicts affect people. With 'Shadow in the Cloud', director Roseanne Liang attempts to tell a story of one woman's battle against toxic masculinity and, for good measure, throws in an evil bat-monkey.
It's 1943. Chloë Grace Moretz ('The Miseducation of Cameron Post', 'Greta') stars as Maude Garrett, a Women's Auxiliary Air Force officer who's been charged with protecting a highly classified piece of cargo (a radio bag) aboard The Fool's Errand, a B-17 Flying Fortress military plane departing from New Zealand.
Despite having her arm in a sling, Maude is as tough as she needs to be to get by as a female soldier in the 1940s. But the male crew of the plane (played by Taylor John Smith, Beulah Koale, Nick Robinson, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowski and Byron Coll) sees her as nothing more than a liability and a sex object, laughing at her attempts to establish authority and then menacing her with sexual threats after forcing her into a ball turret dangling on the underside of the plane. From within these claustrophobic confines, Maude encounters two more overt enemies: Japanese fighter planes lurking behind the cloud cover and a gangly gremlin straight out of the 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' episode of 'The Twilight Zone'. It's not unlike Julius Avery's 'Overlord', which initially posed as a generic WWII grunts-on-a-mission saga before taking a hard phantasmagorical swerve toward something more akin to 'The Descent'.
Before launching into my criticism of the film, it's worth noting that 'Shadow in the Cloud' was originally written by Max Landis, who has been accused by eight women of a number of instances of sexual misconduct. Although the movie has apparently been rewritten, his greasy fingerprints are still all over it. Hearing creepily misogynist dialogue written by a noted misogynist creep is unsettling, if authentic.
A big part of 'Shadow in the Cloud' is a talky one-person show that turns into a tense and nasty black-box thriller (like Rodrigo Cortés' 'Buried' or Doug Liman's 'The Wall'), conveying its politics through the microcosmic stakes of its life-and-death scenario. For the lion's share of 83 minutes, we are right there in that gun turret at the bottom of the B-17, watching this injured soldier try to think her way out of an impossible ordeal. Communicating with the crew via radio, the goings-on in the aircraft are presented in garish lighting as Maude imagines them, accompanied by a terrific retro-synth score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper.
Maude, our hero, is resourceful and resilient, but she's still human. We see the pain and fear scrawled across her features; when she has her finger snapped trying to keep the gremlin out, we don't see steely conviction, but the sobbing convulsions of real agony.
For a big slab of 'Shadow in the Cloud', the film is almost cruelly committed to testing Maude's vulnerability, her limitations, her very human fallibility. More conventionally, the film also teases out a dark backstory, as though the inherent drama of the situation also required some tortured personal motivation. Pity that when the characters open their mouths, they unleash some very heavy-handed artillery, their speech coated too often in cliché.
Max Landis and Roseanne Liang's script, like a dish made by two different cooks, is clumsily prepared. The basic ingredients don't compliment each other.
Eventually, Maude emerges from the turret and the film turns into a crazy action flick. She crawls on the bottom of a plane mid-flight with said broken finger, falls from that plane (at a different point), and gets propelled back inside it by the shockwave of an exploding enemy aircraft. All the while, the The Fool's Errand is taking enemy fire as the crew are wrestling with the gremlin (the WETA CGI-designed creature is first-rate). Frankly, the film is much more enjoyable in this chaotic mode.
Max Landis and Roseanne Liang's script, like a dish made by two different cooks, is clumsily prepared. The basic ingredients don't compliment each other; there's too much gremlin, too much turret, not enough of the crew or the threat of the enemy fighter planes. Not only is the dialogue crude, but the script fills in the details of Maude's situation (and her life back home) in the midst of the action. There should be a little more to the backstory than there is - and more to the movie than a familiar critique of sexist attitudes towards women with an unlikely twist - but Chloë Grace Moretz is terrific, and Liang overlays a preposterous premise with familiar modern complaints.
Perhaps the real problem is that, as we've seen with films like 'Victor Frankenstein', 'American Ultra', and 'Bright', Max Landis just isn't a particularly good writer. "I write scripts the way a lot of people play 'Angry Birds,' he once quipped. As you can imagine, not all of those scripts need to be filmed. At the same, Roseanne Liang rises to the challenge of her one-location war movie, making a hunk of airborne junk feel downright claustrophobic and staging episodes of bonkers action with an admirable lack of restraint. 'Shadow in the Cloud' is an absolute mess, but it's also a small miracle that it's as entertaining as it is.