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Photo: ‘Shadow in the Cloud’/Vertical Entertainment
‘Shadow in the Cloud’, released on January 1, ushered in the New Year with an eye-catching genre-bender of a premise that had some scratching their heads–women, World War II, B-17 bombers, espionage, and gremlins. It audaciously blends various tropes, but does it coalesce into something that works?
Directed by New Zealander Roseanne Liang in her Hollywood debut, it was originally written by Max Landis who drew ire in 2019 after numerous allegations of emotional and sexual abuse came to public light. To distance him from the project, Liang re-wrote much of the script herself, but due to Writers Guild of America rules, Landis is credited as the writer of the script.
Before I saw the film, I didn’t fully grasp what it was that I was about to see, and I pondered for a while how the film could possibly succeed in tidily packaging the smörgåsbord of concepts that it pits against one another. It could be written off as a pulpy historical reimagining à la ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, but Landis’ previous genre-benders including ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Bright’ were serious approaches to utilizing tropes as conduits for social commentary.
In hindsight, there’s a dog whistle in the trailers that tips off exactly what kind of movie it’s going to be, supplemented by the fact that it won the People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness at its 2020 Toronto International Film Festival premiere–this is a piece of grindhouse cinema, and it can only be appreciated as such.
‘Shadow in the Cloud’ – The Set-up
The film opens with an animated wartime PSA that parodies the Private Snafu cartoons, but, without already being acquainted, you might not realize that it’s introducing the real-life history behind gremlins to audiences. Although most of us think first of Joe Dante’s 1984 ‘Gremlins’ (“Don’t ever feed him after midnight!”), gremlins as a concept were invented by British airmen after World War I to explain away mechanical problems and malfunctions. ’Shadow in the Cloud’s’ premise is basically, “what if there really were gremlins messing with planes?”
We’re introduced to Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) on the tarmac of a New Zealand airbase in 1943–she’s a mysterious British pilot on a top-secret mission to deliver a document bag with confidential contents. The visuals and atmosphere establish the tone of a tense, WWII spy thriller, but the soundtrack is heavy on synth, utilizing an arpeggiator to supplement the rhythm beneath a looming, booming melody–it’s a call-back to movies like ‘Blade Runner’ and John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ in the same vein as ‘Stranger Things’, but there’s a disconnect here between what’s being referenced and the setting of the film.
If the music’s only purpose is to sound cool, then it succeeds–however, I consider it to be the aural signature of the film’s “gremlin” aspect. The ‘80s, after all, was the era of films like ‘Aliens’ and ‘Gremlins’, although neither used synth music as is typically associated with ‘80s sci-fi and which is evoked here. At the very least, it ensures that we understand this is not going to be a typical war film or a spy film. It’s going to be something else.
Upon finding and boarding the B-17 bomber known as “The Fool’s Errand,” Garrett is greeted by blatant misogyny and skepticism by the aircrew – what’s a “dame” doing on a bomber? They reluctantly allow her to accompany them only after she shows them her official mission orders, but she’s forced to sit in the Sperry until they’re in the air and can figure out what’s going on.
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It’s a Bottle Episode–Right?
For those unfamiliar, the Sperry is the ball turret–a small, Plexiglas sphere nested in the belly of the bomber equipped with nothing more than two 50-caliber machine guns and just enough space to fit in a person to shoot them. Historically, it was one of the most dangerous and stressful aircrew positions to be in.
At one point, they decide to allow Garrett back onto the aircraft proper, but the hatch malfunctions, and she’s trapped. Consequently, the film plays out through comms. The camera never strays from Garrett’s perspective, perpetuating a sense of uneasy claustrophobia, and we don’t see any of the airmen again–at least not for a while. Instead, we only hear them through the plane’s interphone system.
In this way, the film up until the midpoint is reminiscent of such one-location films as ‘Rear Window’, ‘12 Angry Men’, and ‘Reservoir Dogs’, but most strikingly ‘Locke’, starring Tom Hardy – ’Locke’ takes place entirely within the car as Hardy’s titular protagonist drives from Birmingham to London, plot, and drama being derived from phone conversations that he has with various characters.
‘Shadow in the Cloud’ settles into the same narrative framework, but things get more complicated when Garrett begins catching glimpses of a creature lurking beneath one of the plane’s wings. The crew doesn’t take her seriously, and here is where the film draws heavy inspiration from a classic piece of television, ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Gremlins and Feminism
‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, starring William Shatner and directed by Richard Donner (who would go on to direct ‘Superman’, ‘Lethal Weapon’, and ‘The Goonies’), is one of the most iconic episodes not only of ‘The Twilight Zone’, but of American television. In it, timid Mr. Robert Wilson, played by Shatner, sees a gremlin on the wing of his passenger aircraft–it hides from everyone else, nobody believes Wilson, and he’s taken away as a lunatic while visible engine damage reveals to the audience alone that the gremlin was real and Wilson was right.
Mr. Wilson’s lack of credibility is enhanced by the fact that he had suffered a nervous breakdown six months earlier in response to his fear of flying, while in ‘Shadow in the Cloud’, Garrett’s lack of credibility is enhanced by the fact that she’s a woman.
As stated above, Garrett is greeted with blatant misogyny by the aircrew which continues when she tunes into their comms, hearing them engaging in what I can only describe as the cockpit equivalent of “locker room talk.” Once she engages in conversation, they hostilely question her credentials and capabilities–when the gremlin first appears to her, they obviously don’t believe her. In this way, there’s a clever parallel with the source material that does well to serve both the tension felt by Garrett as she finds herself powerlessly trapped in the presence of a dangerous gremlin and the frustratingly paradoxical process of having to defend herself from suspicion and abuse on the basis of her gender.
At this point of the film, it seems like the seemingly outlandish genre elements have settled and there’s a course laid out that the film could follow. However, it takes a very sharp turn. The story of Garrett’s covert mission comes to a head just as the gremlin begins inflicting major damage on the aircraft and steals the document bag–to make matters worse, Japanese fighters engage the Fool’s Errand and Garrett must act quickly to save not only herself but the contents of the bag.
It’s at this point that the film emerges from its shell, somewhat literally as Garrett leaves the Sperry–hanging from the bottom of a moving B-17 bomber, she climbs across the hull to retrieve her document bag as Japanese fighters shoot and destroy the Sperry behind her.
You might be thinking to yourself that this sounds somewhat improbable. Well, if you saw the trailer, you’ll have seen what happens next–Garrett falls from the plane, but the explosion of a Japanese fighter beneath her propels her back up through the Sperry hole and into relative safety. This is the moment that my partner and I began laughing and cheering, while my aunt got up to go do some dishes.
It’s a moment that I think registered to some audiences as jumping the shark, why the film has a 76% critics score but only a 31% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Most people will get suckered in by the first act into believing the film is what it sets itself up to be–a straight take on the war/spy genre that incorporates a feminist lens, with a gremlin to top it all off. However, the film suddenly pivots and propels Garrett into the role of Ripley from ‘Aliens’ or Sarah Connor from ‘Terminator 2’, doing so with such conviction and extravagance that it might leave you confused and dissatisfied in its wake.
In the end, ‘Shadow in the Cloud’ turns out to be a bit of a hodgepodge. The answer to how the film manages to juggle its various genres is that it doesn’t, and the film feels almost like two combined into one.
It’s ultimately carried by a strong performance by Moretz, as well as the explosion of campy action that starts about halfway through, but it’s admittedly disappointing to see a premise that’s initially set-up with the promise of a cohesive execution be so jarringly cast aside.
Nevertheless, it’s a legitimately fun picture to watch if you’re a fan of grindhouse sensibilities, and it pays tribute to the real women who served as pilots in WWII. I look forward to seeing what Liang and Moretz have in store moving forward.
By Daniel Choi
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Daniel Choi is a writer who’s currently pursuing a BA in Film & Television from New York University. With a background in amateur film production, Daniel is fascinated by how artists’ cultural backgrounds inform their work, subconsciously or not, and how that work is then perceived by different audiences across time and space. He joined Hollywood Insider to promote its mission statement of substantive entertainment journalism, and hopes to enrich readers’ understandings of cinema through insightful analysis.