Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll, Joe Witkowski
Written by: Max Landis, Roseanne Liang
Directed by: Roseanne Liang
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual references and violence
Running Time: 83
Date: 01/01/2021

Shadow in the Cloud (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Wing Nuts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

From Vertical Entertainment's official description "lurking in the shadows, something sinister is tearing at the heart of the plane," Roseanne Liang's Shadow in the Cloud sounds like it's going to be a creepy, slow-moving "haunted plane" movie. It's absolutely not. In fact, be ready for anything.

Opening in select theaters and VOD on the first day of the new year, Shadow in the Cloud begins in 1943 as a woman named Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz) marches down a foggy runway in New Zealand, carrying an oblong package.

Her left arm in a sling, she makes her way on board a plane called "The Fool's Errand." The all-male crew immediately begin attacking her with the likes of "What are you doing here? No dames on the plane!"

But Maude has orders from high up to transport the package. The package is never, under any circumstances, to be opened, and it is the most important thing on the plane.

With no place for her to sit, the men make her crawl into the sperry turret in the belly of the plane. It's a tiny, constricted space, where Maude must position herself as if with her feet in stirrups about to give birth.

Fortunately, she's actually an experienced flier and knows as much, if not more, than her male fellow-travelers. She listens in on the com, and endures some more nasty, very un-PC language about her womanhood, then lets them know she can hear them.

Liang co-wrote the movie with veteran genre screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein, Bright, etc.), who presumably contributed some of the authentic man-speak.

In any case, Maude stays in the turret until about the fifty-minute mark of this speedy, 83-minute movie, and the camera never leaves her. We can hear the other voices, and Maude mentally matches the voices with the faces she briefly saw as she boarded.

But otherwise, director Liang keeps things moving and tense through sheer innovative camerawork and cutting.

While Maude is in the turret, the men — of course — open the package and Maude sees the "something sinister" that's lurking in the shadows. Anyone who has seen Richard Matheson's famous Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (remade for the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie) already knows what it is.

A terrific little retro-style animated wartime cartoon in front of the opening titles also warns us: beware of gremlins.

When Maude does leave the turret, the movie switches from measured and controlled to wildly unbelievable. She doesn't climb back inside the plane. Rather she kicks out a window, and crawls along the belly of the plane, upside down, tens of thousands of feet in the air, while Japanese Zeros fire all around her.

The switch is a bit drastic, and it may cause many viewers to wonder "WTF?" and give up. But stick with it, as the movie asserts that it absolutely knows WTF it's up to.

A few fights, shootouts, bodies falling through the clouds, crashes, and an emergency landing later, the movie unleashes its most 21st century imagery. In the final moments, Maude commits two primal acts: one brutally violent, and the next, nurturing.

To be sure, Shadow in the Cloud comes up with a fitting feminine version of the popular meme "hold my beer."

Liang's movie isn't nearly as polite as other heroic women-driven movies, including last week's Wonder Woman 1984. In this one, Maude is the only one who knows what's going on and what to do about it, and the men had better shape up and get in line behind her.

In one shot, the cartoon pinup girl painted on the side of the plane burns, peeling and turning to black ash.

It's a refreshingly un-subtle message, and perhaps an appropriate way to kick off 2021. But the movie also has a strong 1980s vibe, with its practical monster effects and its throwback John Carpenter-style synthesizer score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, as well as a 1940s war movie gung-ho energy.

Yet it can feel like these different energies are entirely separate from one another during the course of the movie, as if they were sections, rather than pieces of a whole.

No one ever said that a movie this entertainingly demented had to be cohesive, however. But Shadow in the Cloud could have been more effective if it could have somehow warned us that, after adhering to strict rules for 2/3 of its time, it was going to shatter said rules, and that that's okay.

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