We’ve warned you Max Landis is back. Over the years, this screenwriter has arguably become better known for his (in)famous father, nerd-rage rants, and abuse allegations than he has his filmography, which includes such critically thrashed offerings as American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, and Bright. The sour taste left from such cinema might be enough to put you off Shadow In The Cloud. Sitting down to watch this Toronto Film Festival premiere, I was readied for a hate-watch. To my surprise, this thrill ride started off fun. Then, it got deeply, deeply dumb.
Roseanne Liang directs Shadow In The Cloud and has co-writer credit on its screenplay. The film stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Maude Garrett, a World War II pilot on a secret mission. With one arm in a sling and the other tightly clutching a satchel, she strides onto a B-17, right before takeoff. The all-male crew is shocked and suspicious, but she is resolute. While investigating her unexpected appearance, they put her in the gun turret beneath the fighter plane. The glass bubble that surrounds her there is her only protection from a deadly fall to the earth below.
While the men bicker about her over the radio, Maude notices two major threats to their safety. The first is a Japanese plane, flying too close for comfort. The other is a shadow in the cloud. The reveal of what that shadow truly is hits very early on in the film, spinning an iconic Twilight Zone plot into pilot lore. The greater shock comes from what’s in Maude’s satchel, which she cares about more than her own life.
I won’t spill the secret of what’s in the mystery box. I will say this: once it’s revealed, everything gets progressively, irredeemably stupid.
Before this reveal, Shadow In The Cloud has a familiar premise that’s spiced up by sexism. What if the reason no one believed the hero was not because they sound like a panicked loon, but because they are a SHE!? To underscore this point, the script has the men falling all over themselves to demean Maude by calling her missy, dame, broad, pussycat, honey, sweetheart, and tart. Not realizing she can hear them over the radio, some directly comment on her body, saying her “ass” is “hotter than the devil’s c*ck.” She cuts in, shaming them, and demanding the respect due to a fellow soldier. They decide she’s difficult and cut her microphone. Even when Maude has information that could save their lives, they ignore her.
Liang pushes the audience to share in Maude’s anxiety-inducing ostracization by embedding us in the cramped turret with her. Unique angles keep this setting from growing visually stale. Then, Liang works in a synth score that’s reminiscent of ’80s midnight movies. Electronic yowls may be anachronistic to the WWII-era, but they introduce a spooky mood that tantalizes audiences with the promise of a creature reveal. When that hits, it’s genuinely thrilling, a sharply executed jump scare creeps into a jolting first battle. For the first half-hour, Liang delivers a low budget but shrewdly executed thrill ride that bumps along with its heavy-handed messaging but pops with its scares. Then, Maude leaves the turret and basically becomes superhuman.
Once Maude escapes her sky-high prison, Shadow In The Cloud escapes any semblance of sense. From its first scene, the film sets up there’s something in the sky. So the creature feature elements work. Meanwhile, Maude is established as a pilot with a lot of fly time and a take-no-shit attitude. It is not remotely suggested she has the power to scale the outside of a plane in flight while upside down and with her bare hands. It’s preposterous. This bizarre scene throws the narrative logic of the movie into a nosedive from which it cannot recover. Then comes a barrage of bad ideas that should make any audience face-palm.
Still, it’s easy to see why Moretz signed on. While there’s a decent-sized cast, most of the screentime is firmly on her. Not only does she get to wear a Ripley-style flight suit but also she gets to kick butt in it. To top it all off, the satchel reveal gives Maud the opportunity to monologue about her life, her pain, and her purpose. Moretz clicks into the action beats, mouth agape in shock then sneering with tenacity. However, she struggles with the film’s emotional beats, turning a pivotal moment into a cringe-worthy one. The supporting cast (Nick Robinson, Callan Mulvey, Taylor John Smith, Beulah Koale, Joe Witkowski, Byron Coll, and Benedict Wall) can do little to bolster her, as they are chiefly voices over her radio. Beyond that, their characters are so thinly sketched that the threats against them carry no dramatic weight.
There are some dizzying choices in Shadow In The Clouds, yet the most inexplicable might be its end beat. Once the story concludes, a jaunty pop song plays over the credits, while archival images of real World War II female soldiers are shown. In theory, this is meant to honor the inspiration of the film. However, considering the screenwriters felt the best way to tell a story about such a woman was to throw in buckets of insults, a mythical creature, moronic plot twists, and abrupt superpowers, this “tribute” comes off as comically tone-deaf. But hey, at least by that point it’s over. That’s something.
Shadow In The Cloud was originally reviewed out of TIFF 2020, where it made its World Premiere. The film is now out in select theaters, on digital, and VOD.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF