Film Review: Shadow in the Cloud

Directed by: Roseanne Liang; Runtime: 82 minutes
Grade: D

About a decade ago, the claustrophobic one-room or one-location suspense subgenre shot up in popularity, producing an award-nominated film -- and another high-quality contender -- that led to many copycapts. While there were plenty of on-a-clock survival films like it beforehand, the unique tension of such a tight area offers an appealing audiovisual and emotive sensation of sharing the tension with the “trapped” person, whether it’s in a coffin, an elevator, or even a car on a long trip somewhere important. Shortly after, the concept evolved from a relatively simple premise to seeing exactly how crazy a movie can get within those limitations, getting bolder with time periods and locations while including including supernatural elements on the horror side of things that can throw off the intimacy of such a tense human situation. Shadow in the Cloud could perhaps be viewed as the dead end of that development, throwing ridiculousness at the wall in a WWII bomber plane without any of it sticking.

In the middle of World War II, flight officer Maude Garrett has been tasked with the covert mission of transporting a sensitive package from New Zealand to Samoa. As the young, attractive girl climbs aboard the B-17 flying fortress, named the “Fool’s Errand”, she’s met with abrasively sexist and aggressive comments from most of the flight crew, to which she’s mandatorily quartered to the ball turret part of the plane and her package separated from her to keep it safe. Locked in the windowed bubble and dealing with the rest of the crew verbally harassing her over the airwaves, she spots a suspicious shape amid the clouds. Naturally, boys will be boys, so they treat her comments with skepticism and derision as she’s left in the gun turret watching the threat manifests by herself with knowledge of the importance of her package. When the threats of an air conflict start to become more credible, Maude must take matters into her own hands, revealing that there’s more to her than she let on to the flight crew.

Look, it’s understandable that soldiers separated from their families and from members of the opposite sex might’ve be rowdy with a woman brought onto their plane during WWII, but that doesn’t make the beginning of Shadow in the Cloud any more palatable or less prone to shock value. To get to anything even remotely resembling entertainment value, you’ve got to deal with our heroine getting hounded both in person and, more significantly, over the airwaves as she’s locked in the belly of the plane, the soldier’s exaggerated snarls and grins flashing on the screen bathed in red and green lighting. The circumstances that trap her down here, along with the circumstances that separate her from the top-secret package, are preposterous; they seem even more so once the true contents of the bag are revealed. It doesn’t help that Chloe Grace Moretz’s forced, unconvincing regional accent gives the woman an austere and unconvincing presence as she’s fielding the unctuous commentary from her traveling companions above her, whether there’s an air of truth to it or not.

Once Maude’s trapped in the turret, Shadow in the Cloud embraces its most attention-grabbing element, forcing her to stay enclosed in a windowed bubble and clearly under mental duress as she spots things lurking in the darkness outside the plane. At this point, the film suggests that it’d like to be another genre of movie entirely: with the appearance of a fanged, taloned bat-like creature it has a name that I won’t reveal due to potential spoilers -- it starts to act like a B-grade monster movie. Honestly, the visual effects aren't too shabby, and the rendering of these tactile flying critters sinks its teeth into the illusion of it all. Unfortunately, this also starts to blur with the overwhelming chauvinistic angle present in the film, in which her warnings are drowned out by the soldiers’ heckling. This botched meeting point, between the real-world concerns about this woman’s mistreatment or dismissal and the new presence of unrealistic bat-creatures that she’s warning about, undermines whatever symbolism or commentary is intended by writer/director Roseanne Liang and Chronicle/American Ultra writer Max Landis.

As a cross between historical battle-of-the-sexes tension and creature feature, Shadow in the Cloud tends to be uneven and muddled enough, yet it doesn’t stop there by pivoting once again into an all-out action thriller with Chloe Grace Moretz as the badass heroine. She’s got a lot of potential as a unique genre actress, and she’s delivered better-than-expected performances post-Hitgirl in the likes of Let Me In and Suspiria, but she gets lost in the outlandishness surrounding her in this high-elevation blockbuster. There’s a brief moment, when she ditches her accent and grabs the handles of the turret, where it’s possible to see her as a fiery Valkyrie of sorts who's full of fury and struggle as she unloads upon threats to the B-17. Her winces and discomfort while she’s locked away in there are capable of drawing one into her mental space in a similar vein to Ryan Reynolds in Buried or Tom Hardy in Locke; however, there’s also inconsistency to her performance, coasting between dour realism to scream queen exaggeration to invincible bravado, leaving one baffled at sorting out what to take seriously and not.

Shadow in the Cloud is already gliding on fumes getting to its destination with three different subgenres crammed into the space of a one-location thriller, and then it reveals what’s inside the secret government box that Maude’s transporting to Samoa, which begins the film’s inevitable nosedive. Of the countless things that could’ve been securely stored in that large leather case, this is easily one of the most poorly thought-out, orchestrated with good intentions yet reckless abandonment of any hint of believability. Revealing what’s inside should’ve probably been the moment when the film decides that it doesn’t give a damn about realism, but instead it’s the most forthright attempt at salvaging a dramatic point to everything that’s going on, and it’s still followed by perfectly-timed explosions, goofy air physics, and … a fistfight with an oversized, vicious bat-thing that doesn’t immediately end in death? Shadow in the Cloud desperately wants to reach its destination as a grindhouse flick with a soul and a purpose, but it changes course so many times that it has nowhere to go but crashing down.


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