January has been traditionally been, to put it succinctly, a dumping ground for films that studios don’t want. They won’t win any Oscars, they probably won’t make a ton of money, and they might not even be that good in the first place. Last year showed that that might be changing when Underwater came out. An unapologetic genre film that reveled in its tropes, it was entertaining and enjoyable despite having obvious flaws. Maybe it’s a good sign then that the first film of 2021 is the similarly pulpy, nakedly genre-fied Shadow in the Cloud.
Set in World War II New Zealand, our film centers on Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), a flight officer on a secret mission to deliver a highly confidential package. She boards a B-17 bomber called The Fool’s Errand against the wishes of the all-male crew, who view her with disdain. Forced to ride in the ball turret and eventually trapped inside of it, she has to fight off not only the misogyny of the crew and enemy aircraft but also a gremlin that is trying to sabotage the plane and steal her package.
Shadow in the Cloud is an unusual beast to say the least, and that’s a compliment. In some ways, it feels like a classic entry in an anthology TV series like The Outer Limits padded out to barely feature-length. In fact, Amazing Stories in 1985 had an episode with a very similar concept. And of course, the gremlin-on-a-plane premise is also shared with The Twilight Zone‘s classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” But director/writer* Roseanne Liang has done more than just add a layer of cinematic sheen and feminist sensibility to a classic sci-fi concept.
Liang’s film is refreshingly direct and unpretentious, unapologetic in both its message and its embrace of genre. We’re given just the barest of backstory before everything begins, and Liang wastes no time in getting the narrative moving. The only information we learn about any of the characters — Maude included — comes out organically through dialogue and their reactions to the story beats. There’s only one real moment of true exposition dump halfway through the film, and even then it sits fairly naturally in its environment. The dialogue is direct and efficient, sharp and precise.
That being said, the characters’ personalities are pretty much telegraphed in the very first scene of Maude interacting with the crew when she boards The Fool’s Errand. Aside from Maude herself, there isn’t a ton of subtlety involved, and only a handful of the characters are at all dynamic. The most notable among the crew is Nick Robinson as tail gunner Beckell, who both ends up experiencing his first combat and is the first after Maude to spot the gremlin that will make all their lives dramatically difficult over the next 83 minutes. Robinson gives the most dedicated performance among the crew and ends up making Beckell easily the most sympathetic of them.
However, given the briskness and immediacy of Liang’s story, the relative shallowness of the supporting characters isn’t a deal-breaker at all. The film unfolds essentially in real time, with the vast majority of that time focused solely on Maude as she sits in the ball turret and communicates with the crew via the plane’s comm system. In fact, almost nothing in the film happens outside of Maude’s perspective.
So thank whatever power you want to that Chloë Grace Moretz is the person playing her. Moretz is magnetic, plain and simple, and she both commands and holds our attention effortlessly. Maude is a steely spitfire, but that hides an emotional vulnerability that ends up becoming one of her greatest assets. During one of her confrontations with the gremlin, she says that she’ll do anything to complete her mission, and she’s both saying this as a threat to the beast and a promise to herself.
What I’m trying to say is that Moretz is just really, really damn good here, and no matter what you might think of the film around her, her performance is above argument. Period.
Liang does lay quite heavily into the feminist angle of Maude’s character, sometimes at the expense of story. During the first act, Maude is subject to a huge amount of misogyny and harassment from most of the crew, and while that’s part and parcel for the era in many ways, it sometimes seems a bit thick. It literally takes Maude gunning down an enemy plane to net even a little bit of respect from just some of the crew. And even then, at least one of the crew finds her strength and skill suspicious and dangerous.
However, by the third act, this is mostly dropped in favor of a series of propulsive, heart-grabbing action sequences that treat physics as a polite suggestion and are all the better off for it. Liang is adept at raising the tension over the first two acts at a very even, steady pace so that when the big scenes happen, they feel earned and climactic AF. There was literal nail-biting in my house while we were watching it.
One of the best indicators of the film’s attitude and sense of self comes from its captioning. The captions just don’t state the important sound-effects but exclaim them, 60’s Batman-style: BANG! CLANG! It’s a subtle touch that says so much. From its over-the-top finale to its deliciously anachronistic, John Carpenter-esque synth score to its superheroic protagonist, this film is more than just a testament to the entertainment power of genre cinema. It’s also a hell of a way to start 2021.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+
* While Max Landis is also credited as a writer, both Roseanne Liang and Chloë Grace Moretz have stated in interviews that following the sexual assault accusations against Landis, the film was heavily rewritten by Liang herself. Landis’ name remained credited solely due to Writers Guild of America rules.
Shadow in the Cloud can be streamed from Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.