In an age when we’ve seen every type of movie multiple times, the way to get something fresh and original is to jam together several different types of movie into a single outrageous mashup. The result is Shadow in the Cloud, a World War II movie with an 80s synth score, an action movie that spends half its running time in a single enclosed space no bigger than one flight officer. Did we mention the CGI gremlin? The movie quivers with entertainment value, and is the best type of preposterous.
Shadow in the Cloud is the second feature from Kiwi director Roseanne Liang, and if there’s any justice, it will be a calling card that significantly shortens the period before her next feature from the nine years that have elapsed since her first. The film was also shot in New Zealand, featuring a Maori actor (Beulah Koale) as a pilot, but it has the kind of international cast that characterises the best frame stories – stories of a motley assortment of characters stuck in a scenario they must collectively address. And what a scenario.
Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude Garrett, the rare female flight officer, who boards a B-17 bomber called the Fool’s Errand, transporting cargo from Auckland to Samoa in 1943. The South Pacific is besieged by combat with the Japanese, but not this far south – or so they think. However, of far greater concern for the all-male crew is that a woman is infiltrating their portable mancave. They’ve got orders from on high validating her presence, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to respect her. Quite the opposite, as she’s objectified and belittled from her first moments on board. But she’s got a secret high-value package to protect, and secret combat skills that may far outweigh theirs.
The Japanese will make an appearance, but so will a foe far less grounded in their wartime experiences. While sitting in the lower gunner turret, to which she is consigned during takeoff as a sort of punishment, Garrett sees what looks like an oversized rodent – oversized, like her own size – tearing metal panels and other essential cabling from the bowels of the plane. It’s like that episode of The Twilight Zone, only she’s William Shatner. Are the guys above her, making disparaging comments about her abilities and lascivious comments about her figure, going to believe this? Not likely.
The opening moments of this film thrum under the propulsion of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s 80s synth score, which makes periodic appearances throughout. It’s a great way to breathe modernity into a story set eight decades in the past, even if that modernity has its own roots four decades in the past. More than anything it prepares you for the glorious and pulpy B movie that lies ahead, reinforced by a title card that smash-fills the screen as the score reaches a crescendo.
Ready for surprise number two? There’s not a huge amount of action for the first half of this film. In fact it becomes a chamber piece of sorts, as Garrett gets stuck in the turret when its various knobs and levers start breaking off in her hands. For an unusually long chunk of this film, we get to know the various men above her only by their voices over the shipboard comms, even as the dynamics between them shift based on new information revealed about Garrett.
As the camera is almost always on Moretz during this passage of the film, a lot is required of the 23-year-old, and she delivers flawlessly. In fact, one might consider this the first truly adult role for the former child actress – not because the subject matter is serious (hardly!), but because she seems to be suppressing instincts that didn’t necessarily serve her well during her transition from Hit Girl in Kick-Ass to where she find herself now.
Surprise number three is that the film’s second half is as much of an audacious, effects-laden action movie as its first half could have existed equally comfortably on stage. It seems surprising that a comparatively inexperienced director could have a mastery of both modes, but Liang has as many surprises in store as her main character. Simply put, the second half of Shadow in the Cloud is a goofy blast, the type of movie for which kernels of corn were first popped into popcorn. (And at a swift 83 minutes, it’s as light and easily digestible as popcorn as well.) The camera moves around vertiginously to capture incoming enemy fire from all angles, not to mention onboard fights and daring rescues. You’re likely to scream with delight at least once.
Shadow in the Cloud earned the People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. This movie has future cult classic written all over it. It may be better than that. It may be worse. But there’s no doubt it is a crazy ride that’s well worth taking, the kind of movie that earns a higher rating than it might deserve simply out of sheer absurdity and glorious spectacle. Thank goodness we live in a world where someone gets to make Shadow in the Cloud – and we get to watch it.
Shadow in the Cloud is currently playing in cinemas.