It’s a weird time for action spectacles, when films that were clearly designed to be seen with crystal-clear projection and booming, enveloping audio are instead premiering straight into our living rooms. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud straddles the line between an IMAX-friendly extravaganza and the sort of mid-budget genre whatsit you’d stream on Netflix, and it uses a lot of ancient filmmaking tricks to disguise its modest means: It’s relegated to one set for a bulk of its run time, it’s mostly anchored by a single performance, and it creates the illusion of space through sound design and stylized cutaways.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from the movie when I rented it. Based on its poster, with a steely-eyed Chloë Grace Moretz casually walking away from a couple exploding planes, I assumed it would be an Atomic Blonde-style thriller, or maybe a military revenge flick. It’s actually a truly weird cross between Gremlins, the “Terror at 20,000 Feet” episode of Twilight Zone and such plane-bound, ticking-clock mysteries like Flightplan or Red Eye, and though it’s not as good as any of those, it’s trying something unusual.
The film opens on an air base in New Zealand in 1943, as a female flight officer named Garrett (Moretz) waltzes onto a departing bomber with her arm in a sling and a mysterious carry-on bag that must be stored in an upright position. The all-male crew is particularly hostile to her, hurling sexist insults and making derogatory comments. (It should be pointed out that the film was originally written by Max Landis, who has a history of assault allegations to his name. Liang reportedly rewrote his screenplay extensively, and Landis only remains credited as a legal formality.)
The first hour of Shadow in the Cloud has the feel of an old-timey radio play brought to the screen: We’re trapped in a gunner turret underneath the plane with Garrett, and we can only hear the other men through their ribald conversation over their walkies. As they’re heading through a cloud front, Garrett sees something scurrying about on one of the wings — it looks like the mythical gremlins that are introduced in a fake animated PSA at the top of the film — but she can’t convince the men above that she’s telling the truth. She is concealing details about her actual mission, however, and even we’re left in the dark about what she’s up to: What is she doing with that handgun she has hidden in her pocket, and why does her British accent keep slipping?
Shadow in the Cloud ends up being a mishmash of genres and tones, which is typical of its disgraced writer’s grab-bag style. It’s predicated on an interesting-enough idea, and zips by in about 75 minutes. But it ultimately doesn’t really work, and I think it’s because it never quite settles on what it’s really about. We get some bloody monster violence, some physics-defying stunts, and one or two tear-streaked confessions, but those disparate parts never quite click together in a satisfying way.
We get a lot more of these so-called “gremlins” in the second half of the film, too, and they’re not all that compelling: The quality of the CGI is about on par with a movie from 15 years ago, and there’s never the illusion that the digital monsters are actually occupying the same space as the human actors. The closing credits feature some WWII-era stock footage of women at war (set to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”), suggesting that this is supposed to be some sort of empowerment parable. It’s a curious choice, because Moretz, who has proven herself to be a solid action hero, is saddled with every “conflicted female character” cliche in the book, and the idea that women deserve more credit for their participation in the war effort isn’t something the movie really explores.
At the same time, I have to give credit to Liang for making some bold choices (and for making the best of an unfortunate Landis-related situation). This isn’t a predictable action movie by any means, and it’s got so many potentially great ideas that it’s all the more frustrating when they don’t pay off. I admired what it was trying to do without ever really buying into it. ♦
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD
Directed by Roseanne Liang
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz
For rent on Amazon and Vudu