Directed by Roseanne Liang
Written by Max Landis and Roseanne Liang
Though I want to say that it's good, or at least good-enough—perfectly watchable, fun, and sometimes actually great—Shadow in the Cloud is the kind of movie that genuinely disappoints me: a film that looks like it was specifically made to appeal to my interests, is executed with serious verve, yet still winds up being just barely adequate because of, basically, one single decision at the screenplay stage that transforms it right before your eyes into practically another movie entirely, one significantly worse than the one you had been watching and enjoying. This happens halfway through, and not everything that occurs afterward is "bad"—I acknowledge that some viewers will be perfectly willing to go along with the demented left turn it makes, and, you know, that's cool—but the thing that happens becomes so thoroughly what the movie's going to be about now, that if you don't like it, it's going to be awfully hard to enjoy the good parts because there is not one single second that goes by afterward where you can ignore it. Irritatingly, having done this, Shadow jettisons its worthier themes, kind of wrecks much of what was initially compelling about its protagonist, and repositions its titular threat from a metaphor to a monster-of-the-week. On top of that, it gives the film permission to become very dumb.
So that screenplay comes rewritten by its director, New Zealand filmmaker Roseanne Liang (making only her second feature since 2011), sharing credit with nepotism hire and creep Max Landis, and while it plainly only retains his name because of WGA rules, it's unclear to what extent Liang actually reconceived it. If she didn't reconceive it much, I wish she'd reconceived it more. I'd venture it still feels like it was written by a dude overcompensating for his sins—and still doing so in sexist ways—but then, Liang's said she took inspiration from other single-location films, namedropping Aliens, which... yeah, no fooling. Either way, I guess Liang the writer gets the blame, since I expect her hand was pretty much free at that point, but, on the plus side, Liang the director goes extremely hard at the material anyway, in ways that make for a downright exhilarating B-movie and, if the material had been actually good, something that could've been a low-budget genre miracle. Though it occurs to me that a bit more money wouldn't have killed anybody, either.
Shadow starts exceedingly promisingly, with as confident a statement of purpose as movies get, a brief animated short modeled on Pvt. Snafu cartoons (albeit, unfortunately, not with any special fidelity: it's in color, and distractingly digital, but at least the aspect ratio's right), wherein a lackadaisical goofus of an airman is chastened by a narrator, whose hands reach right into the screen, like somebody making shadow puppets in front of the projector, and who reminds him that a careless airman is a dead airman, so there's no use blaming "gremlins" for maintenance failures even as a gray bat-like creature punks him and generally degrades the war effort. You are presently invited to guess, if you somehow didn't already know, what kind of monster this action-horror film will star.
That brings us to the movie proper, opening in 1943 as Flight Officer Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) of the New Zealand WAAF makes her way onto a tarmac in Auckland and boards an RNZAF B-17 after it's already begun takeoff procedure, much to the surprise and consternation of a remarkably diverse crew (besides the expected Pakeha Kiwis and a Maori, there's a Scot, and I believe two Americans). Maude presents her orders, concerning the delivery of an extremely important and enormously confidential package, though they throw her into the unmanned underbelly turret just to keep her out of sight. Objecting, for reasons she will not divulge, to carrying her top-secret package down there with her, she entrusts it to Staff Sgt. Quaid (Taylor John Smith) in the top turret, inasmuch as he alone amongst the crew manages to treat her with even a modicum of respect or professionalism. As for the rest, as soon as they think she's out of earshot, it's a roaring cavalcade of sexual innuendo, and this doesn't exactly stop even when they finally realize that Maude, despite being a girl, is aware of the highly-complicated two-step process for operating the aircraft's intercom. This continues for a while until things take a more severe (and more supernatural) turn, as first Maude, then others, catch glimpses of an uncanny, winged thing. on the wing. of the plane; and things get even worse when the IJNAF arrives, despite the commander's assurances that the Japanese couldn't possibly be this far south.
Which is fairer than I think the movie wants to make it sound, coming, as it does, out of this asshole's mouth: it's acceptable license (so acceptable that if it didn't happen, you'd even feel cheated, though it's nearly the equivalent of Germans raiding Philadelphia with their aircraft carrier, and you wouldn't accept that), but Shadow is sometimes disagreeably content to trade on its assumed viewer's ignorance.* So while its big problem is disproportionately bad, it's got more than just the one, starting with an overprosecution of its argument that can sometimes shade into a harangue, with maybe too much runtime given over to a misogynistic crew who treat the existence of a female auxiliary (let alone a female pilot) as scarcely more believable than a gremlin—it's a very unsubtle film, and every male character is annoying or useless or both, even the "good" one (and his reason for being "good" is its own problem)—and to an extent it's even bound up in the undeniable prowess of Liang's filmmaking, with strong visual storytelling choices to undergird that argument. (One of the very first images of the movie proper is Maude confronted with the pin-up girl nose art of the B-17 dubbed Fool's Errand, establishing that this is an unsafe or at least unwelcoming space for women, which is very smart filmmaking and perhaps slightly uncharitable to young adults who had the highest casualty rates in the Allied forces and preferred to die with some chaste porn on their planes, which themselves were, you know, being deployed to kill people, very frequently women; it reminds me of the line from Apocalypse Now about what counts as obscene.) It's less an issue of accuracy, I suppose, than of taste; I think it rings truer when they're condescending, or scared. Either way, you get what Shadow's after significantly quicker than it gets to its WAAF officer vs. monster selling point, though—in fairness!—it actually spends less time on "I've got a package for you!"-level harassment and Maude's proud-but-futile protestations than I feared it could.
And when it does find its groove, for the last stretch of its first act, Shadow is absolutely golden, at its best as the gremlin skulks around in the darkness outside, and the film's argument shifts from "women can be aircrew and men can be shit" to "men don't believe women, and won't even believe other men if they agree with them." For twenty minutes, it's honest-to-God brilliant allegory, not even entirely accidentally, as an objectively real horror escapes the notice of everyone but Maude until, finally, it can't be ignored. (That Max Landis wrote any of this is face-melting irony.) Which demonstrates, again, not just intelligence, but purpose—particularly when said gremlin, rather than making any effort to actually hide from Maude, or from the audience, just sits there in front of her bubble, and makes a very rude face with its incredibly gross tongue in a way that looks like it's vomiting up a pomegranate. (This movie's small CGI budget never fails to be obvious, by the way, but it's surprisingly functional. In the moments it's not—mostly in the greenscreen work rather than its creature's design or implementation—I genuinely think Liang is using her production's limited resources in homage to the way a 1940s movie would've been obliged to do the same scenes, with "gravity" represented mostly by the camera being upside down, and "sky" looking suspiciously similar to an unpersuasive rear projection.)
It's at this juncture that the screenplay, which looks for a tantalizingly pregnant moment like it's adding moral complication to the mix—as Moretz drops her intentionally-unsteady Kiwi accent, and it becomes clear she's been lying, and the contents of her package become the subject of frightened scrutiny—just slams directly into the aforementioned brick wall of its mid-film twist. I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that it is not gremlin eggs (that is, proof of their existence, and a matter of urgent national security), though that's what I thought it was, and I still think it would've been a better idea. But then, "literally nothing" would also have been a better idea.
What it actually is reorients the "character" aspect of the film hard, and not in any good direction, expanding the social commentary that was never its strongest suit when it was addressing it out loud while flattening Maude in the most profoundly reductive way it possibly could, evidently without ever recognizing that it's doing this. It's also around this point that everything starts getting sillier, and it's hard to square the defining moment of the first half, the gritty pragmatism of Maude latching her broken turret with her own finger, knowing damn well that that finger will snap, with the defining moment of the second, which involves kung fu with a digital gremlin. (I honestly hate to say it, but there's at least a faint Mary Sue-ish quality to Maude, not just in her more superhuman exploits, but in the way the Fool's Errand's crew barely appear to know how to operate their own aircraft and often need to have Maude explain it to them, and in the way that it can't even let Maude get so much as a smudge on her character—I mean, Jesus, in this day and age, she still can't simply be an adultress? But really, I do hate to say it. You know, "Mary Sue" wasn't a full-on sexist term until idiots like, yeah, Max fucking Landis started using it in oblivious cooperation with a psyop campaign around The Last Jedi, but these are the stupid times we live in. And Rey doesn't even really fit the definition, for the record, at least not the Rey of The Last Jedi.)
For all that—and that's a lot of "that"—Shadow has some mammoth compensations, from a spectacularly and unapologetically anachronistic score by Mauhia Bridger-Cooper that matches 80s synth with a 40s setting and pulls a WWII movie into a place where its particular brand of B-horror seems completely natural (even papering over that pretty abrupt switch from suspense to action, and getting crazily experimental as things escalate), to a frankly great performance from Moretz that's probably the movie's most necessary strength, in that she somehow manages to find specific, human-sized dimensions in Maude and weave those into a strong, recognizable throughline, despite, e.g., crawling around on the underside of a flying B-17 in pursuit of gremlin. It still comes down to Liang giving Moretz the space to create that character, or, more accurately, the time, because the space is minimal; the other influence Liang named was, of all things, Locke, and by God, that checks out. As much as I've complained about the sexist yammering, I shouldn't have made it sound like these scenes aren't well-made, Liang and cinematographer Kit Fraser selling the cramped claustrophobia and angry impotence of being inside a locked ball turret while those sexists yammer, without ever running out of ways to film Moretz's face, in turn requiring Moretz to come up ways to occupy the screen with that face; and all involved do fantastic work.
So I do want to reemphasize that it is, at least, good, just saddled with big caveats (truthfully, even with the same basic script problems, it could've gotten more mileage out of the "suspense" phase, and one of my smaller quibbles is that this horror movie about a murderous demon is never once scary; plus the finale is just awful). But I would still, I think, recommend it. If nothing else at all, it's put Liang on my radar as a director to watch out for, even if I hope her next script proves that this one was mostly the rapist's fault.
*Holy shit, this movie has no idea what 20mm shells do to an aircraft (possibly what 20mm shells are), and I've never seen a movie other than Victory Through Air Power more in thrall to the myth of the self-defending bomber, either.