By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Beulah Koale and Taylor John Smith
Directed by Roseanne Liang
Written by Max Landis and Roseanne Liang
Generally, one doesn’t like to reveal a mid-film change in direction when writing a review, to allow potential viewers to discover it for themselves. In the case of SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, however, it might actually help to know that after a first two-thirds in which the tone is gritty reality, SHADOW makes a great leap over the top, into the realm of the outrageous. Knowing that’s coming, and being prepared for it, may prevent whiplash.
Fortunately, director/co-writer Roseanne Liang guides this airborne fright film with all the confidence you’d want in a pilot navigating dangerous territory. And she sets the WWII-era stage with a cartoon about gremlins afflicting Air Force fighters that’s clearly standing in for the Bugs Bunny classic FALLING HARE–quite fitting for a movie that ultimately gets pretty Looney Tunes.
The story that follows is less GREMLINS than an expanded but scaled-down version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the TWILIGHT ZONE favorite from both the original series and the 1983 movie. The aircraft here is the B-17 bomber The Fool’s Errand, which takes off from an Air Force base in Auckland, New Zealand on a mission to Samoa with an unexpected passenger: Captain Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), who talks her way on board just before takeoff, bearing a leather case that she insists not be opened. The soldiers, led by Captain Reeves (Callan Mulvey), are not thrilled with having a woman on board, even one with Garrett’s military qualifications, so they stick her in the ball turret on the plane’s underside to keep her out of their way. It’s a scary place to be during the flight, with only glass and rickety metal separating Garrett from a death plunge–yet it quickly becomes clear she’s probably safer in there, separated from Fool’s Errand’s sexist, antagonistic crew.
Their misogynistic invective, which Garrett can hear and respond to over a an intercom, might feel rather uncomfortable to some who note that the problematic Max Landis was SHADOW’s original scriptwriter. Yet Liang, who heavily rewrote Landis’ draft, has crafted it as a mix of female-forward survival drama and confinement thriller, as Garrett verbally holds her own against the guys and proves herself as a gunner too, when Japanese planes appear in the surrounding sky. There’s another, closer threat to deal with: an actual gremlin that she spots crawling around the wings, pulling pieces out of the mechanisms. She cannot, of course, convince the men of its existence, but Liang and the Weta visual effects team supervised by Stephen Unterfranz make a scary presence out of the creature–which appropriately, given the initial Kiwi setting, resembles a winged cousin of the Sumatran rat monkey from Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE.
As we remain trapped in that turret with Garrett for the first 50 minutes of SHADOW, Liang and Moretz build an intensity and sympathy for her, and efficiently establish the period atmosphere and attitudes (the decidedly modern yet still effective synth score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper notwithstanding). Even as we only get to know the male antagonists (and Quaid, played by Taylor John Smith, the only sympathetic one in the bunch) via their voices, we still get a strong sense of their characters, and the mystery of just what’s in that case, and how it might be connected to the plane’s plight, adds an effective undercurrent of mystery. When we and the men ultimately learn what those contents are, it occasions a moving monologue from Moretz and seriously ups the story’s stakes.
It is after this point that Garrett becomes a woman of physical action, and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD makes its jump into setpieces that may test credibility (especially as Garrett first shows up with her arm in a sling). Yet by this point, we’re so invested with Garrett, and the production is so physically sound, that we’re willing to follow her and the film anywhere. SHADOW trades visceral plausibility for rousing exaggeration in its final act and pulls it off, as Liang keeps the pacing brisk over the tight 75-minutes-plus-credits running time. And while it appears at one point like the monster might be sidelined in favor of the human drama, anyone familiar with the form will know not to count it out, and that knowledge doesn’t make Garrett’s final confrontation with the winged beast any less satisfying.