Keeping a movie’s ending secret is neither a chore nor a great ask, but keeping a movie’s secrets secret is a special kind of Herculean feat. This is especially true of movies like Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, an action-period-monster mash where only the barest of details may be permitted for publication in professional reviews for fear of spoilers. Even the mere acknowledgment that there’s more under the hood than the film’s logline feels like saying too much. But Shadow in the Cloud’s escalating spectacle and driving mystery are two very good reasons to watch it as a 2020 awards season detox, so the less you know, the better.
Other reasons include star Chloë Grace Moretz, as well as Liang’s aesthetics and setting of choice, which combine into suspense ranging from claustrophobic to acrophobic as the plot ratchets along. It’s 1943, it’s World War II, and Moretz plays Maude Garrett, a Flight Officer on a mission to transport a leather bag containing a classified MacGuffin, which she is to keep with her at all times on her journey from Auckland to Samoa. Her chariot is the “Fool’s Errand,” a B-17 Flying Fortress crewed nearly 100% by chauvinist pigs who make first impressions with Garrett by sexualizing her, doubting her military credentials and sticking her in the Sperry turret on the plane’s undercarriage. The good news is, they’re flying through a non-combat zone, so she’s safe and sound even if the view is terrifying.
But not as terrifying as the gremlin scuttling about the plane’s wings or the Japanese fighter jets lurking in cumuli like sharks looking for a meal—and, concurrent to those, the men’s refusal to take Garrett seriously on either count. Only Quaid (John Taylor Smith) tries deflecting his fellows’ misogyny, heard over comms as Liang stays in cramped quarters with Moretz for roughly a half hour of Shadow in the Cloud’s slim running time. The movie opens with a workplace safety video slash rah-rah patriotic propaganda cartoon about a mechanic lazily blaming plane malfunctions on gremlins, claimed by the tape’s narrator to not exist. Of course they do, and of course nobody buys Garrett’s pleas for help, which forces her to solve the problem herself.
The blow-off cliché for describing movies focused predominantly on one actor is to say they’re on screen for the entire picture, even if they’re not literally on screen for the entire picture. Other than the handful of moments where Liang’s cinematographer Kit Fraser peeks down to remind the audience that 30,000 feet is a long, long way away from solid ground, Moretz is genuinely on screen for the entire picture. Liang doesn’t let the men into the frame until she’s good and ready, and until Moretz has staked her claim as Queen Ass Kicker on the “Fool’s Errand” by shooting down enemies and fighting off monsters. Even at 23 years old, Moretz has little to prove, having amassed a filmography running the gamut from trashy superhero movies (Kick-Ass) to highbrow French Cinema (Clouds of Sils Maria) to psychothrillers (Greta). In Shadow in the Cloud, she proves herself anyway.
Carrying a movie inspired by a classic Twilight Zone hook isn’t a challenge on paper. In practice, Liang’s inspiration only goes as far as the premise before rapidly inflating into something shockingly fresh, where Moretz makes statements about femininity and womanhood without having to spell it out for her audience. She runs the gamut: Tired, exasperated, intelligent, resourceful, scared witless and yet unfailingly quick-witted. Garrett is a classic pulp movie hero given new perspective by Liang’s screenplay. Don’t let the Max Landis credit fool you, by the way: Writers Guild of America rules glued his name to the film, but Liang rewrote the script after the copious sexual misconduct accusations flew. In fact, Shadow in the Cloud’s themes about sexism and gender roles serve as a rebuke to Landis’ authorship, as if Liang put pen to paper with her middle finger squarely aimed at toxic male culture.
Liang’s other remarkable feat is that the movie’s purposeful reclamation of period adventure cinema remains tightly wound in its action, which is close to non-stop. Garrett rarely has a still moment to catch her breath. By extension her viewers don’t, either. At around 80 minutes, Shadow in the Cloud spares them mind-numbing exhaustion. Liang appears keenly aware that an exercise like this one can only be sustained for a brief window of time before the wheels come off, and her decision to keep things trim and at a rapid clip pays off with pleasingly excruciating tension. Even so, Shadow in the Cloud’s visceral qualities come in close second to the unexpected paths taken by its narrative, which add newness to the familiar genre elements without the pretense of “elevating” them.
Director: Roseanne Liang
Writer: Roseanne Liang, Max Landis
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson, Callan Mulvey, Beulah Koale, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowski, Byron Coll
Release Date: January 1, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.