It is a strange time for cinemas. In those countries where theatres are still open, and the risk is low enough, there is a remarkable dearth of Hollywood product. The big-budget tentpoles are all rattling down like pinballs through the release schedule, leaving small and independent distributors to fill the screens as best they can.
January is usually dumping season for Hollywood, using poorly tested or surplus productions to fill the gaps between whatever blockbusters have held on since November and December. The problem is that in late 2020 there was precisely one – Wonder Woman 1984 – and that leaves the B-movies of January 2021 to fend for themselves.
What a relief, then, to find Shadow in the Cloud. It is an unapologetic blend of war movie, action thriller, and horror film. Its origins can be very easily pinned to any number of World War II pictures, mixed up with the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. It is modest in scale, but packs a hell of a punch.
1943. Flight Officer Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) boards a B-17 bomber immediately before take-off, carrying a top secret cargo that cannot be opened under any circumstances. A resentful all-male crew force her to sit in the sperry – a ball turret mounted to the underside of the plane. Once in the air, it becomes apparent that the Japanese are tailing their flight, that something inhuman is climbing on the outside of the plane, and that Flight Officer Garrett does not seem to exist.
Shadow in the Cloud, ignoring its extremely forgettable title, is a tightly-wound and inventive 90 minutes of action, horror, and tension. A large part of the film is spent inside the sperry with Garrett, providing a wonderful blend of both claustrophobia and, oddly, agarophobia (there is only a thin plate of aluminium between Garrett and the ocean below). The constant balance between Garrett’s secret, the Japanese fighter planes, and the mysterious creature ensures the film does not ever pause for breath. In the tradition of the very best low-budget pulp, the film gets in as late into the story as it can manage, screams through its running time with all guns blazing, and gets out as quickly as it arrived.
The screenplay is relatively by-the-numbers pulp, originally written by Max Landis and then extensively reworked several times after he was fired from the production for sexual misconduct. The filmed version is co-credited to director Roseanne Liang. Despite its fairly rudimentary dialogue and characterisation, the script works as a remarkable solid base for some highly inventive action choreography and atmospheric photography. It also pushes credibility to a breaking point from time to time, so pedants over physics may be best off left at home. Go with the flow, and it is a wonderfully slick, stream-lined thriller. Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s creepy electronic score lends the film a sense of John Carpenter; a smart choice of director to emulate.
It is Chloë Grace Moretz’s movie, and she delivers a sensational action performance. She is an unstoppable force, despite being terrified beyond sense and constantly attacked by claws, bullets, and gravity. She already made female action hero history as a teenager in Kick Ass, and here she doubles-down on her fighting credentials with a tremendously likeable and engaging character. The film feels a genuinely feminist one, even though it does pile some odious male sex talk into its earlier scenes.
If the last 12 months have you craving some genuinely absurd escapism, Shadow in the Cloud is a noisy, explosive tonic. It is the kind of well-tooled popcorn entertainment that typically misses Australian cinemas altogether on the road to home video and streaming. Get in on the big screen experience now.