Shadow in the Cloud holds some promise in its early genre goings, but the second half reveals an unfortunate dearth of ideas and charm.
It’s never a great sign when a feature-length film begins by putting a lampshade on its own obvious antecedent. Case in point: Roseanne Liang’s new film Shadow in the Cloud, a low-budget, high-concept riff on the famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (which has already been remade in the 1983 film version of Twilight Zone, as well as the 2019 rebooted streaming series). Set in the Pacific Theater during WWII, Shadow in the Cloud opens with an animated short, a military training film declaring that “gremlins” aren’t real, and that lazy servicemen shouldn’t use them as an excuse for their own carelessness. As soon as the short ends, we are thrust into a flurry of harried activity, as Flight Officer Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) packs a case and runs out onto a busy tarmac, finally forcing her way on to a B-17 Flying Fortress. The crew is immediately distressed by the arrival of a stranger, not least because she’s a woman. After some finagling, Garrett’s top secret package is sequestered with one of the gunners while she is sent to the underbelly of the plane to sit in the “Sperry,” which is basically a small sphere with a machine gun sticking out of it. Liang orchestrates these early goings with swift efficiency, introducing the players and getting Garrett into her claustrophobic hole in just a few short minutes of screen time. Once in the Sperry, we are locked into Garrett’s point-of-view, with only dark skies and ominous clouds visible. It’s a tricky balancing act, limiting the action to one small, confined space, but it mostly works. Garrett deals with sexist commentary from the chauvinist airmen, who are distinguished only by their different accents, while trying to assert her rank and keep the men from investigating her package. Inevitably, of course, the gremlin strikes, a large winged beast that’s like a cross between a bat and a rabid rat, but there are also Japanese fighter planes darting in and out of the clouds below. The churlish Captain doesn’t believe her when Garrett says she sees enemy planes, and certainly doesn’t believe her when she says there’s a strange creature ripping parts out of the engines. What’s a gal to do?
Not dissimilar to 2020’s The Vast of Night, large swaths of Shadow in the Cloud play almost like a radio program, with a cacophony of voices cluttering the comms line in overlapping dialogue and carefully placed sound effects, all building to a mid-film climax where Moretz fights off the creature while keeping a hatch closed with only her (mangled) index finger. The problem here, then, is that all of this build-up has to lead somewhere, and once the narrative has to start revealing its secrets, it too quickly runs out of steam. Garrett is not who she seems, and the contents of her case link her to both a crime and to a soldier who’s already onboard the plane. What’s their connection? And why all the subterfuge? The answers are not particularly interesting. Once Garrett has to exit the Sperry to crawl under the plane’s wing to retrieve her precious cargo, which is dangling by a thread from a piece of scrap metal, mood and atmosphere give way to cheap, poorly-rendered spectacle. Eventually, Garrett and the bombardier crew are fighting off both the gremlin and a trio of enemy fighters, and whatever charm the film had evaporates. Credit Liang (who extensively rewrote the film after original writer/producer Max Landis was booted from the project following credible allegations of sexual assault) for having some fun with the genre and taking a few big swings in the film’s first half, but Shadow in the Cloud only works when its ambitions remain conceptual.