For a movie about a woman fighting a giant creature on an airplane during World War II, Shadow in the Cloud is surprisingly complex. It’s basically two movies; one is a claustrophobic, paranoid thriller with a character in a single location under intense distress, the second a swashbuckling adventure film that gives Indiana Jones and Spider-Man a run for their money. The link between them is crucial, plus there’s some larger context at work, one not everyone will immediately pick up on.
Co-written and directed by Roseanne Liang, Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Maude, a pilot who hitches a plane ride to transport mysterious cargo. Once on board, she’s met with very, very intense opposition and harassment by the entirely male crew who banishes her to a tiny turret compartment below the plane, linked to them only through the radio. There she sees a mysterious creature tearing apart the plane but the men blame her for it, all while they try to figure out what she’s doing there in the first place.
That’s the basic set up for the first half of the movie, and here’s where we mention the co-writer along with Liang: Max Landis. Landis, son of filmmaker John Landis, is a screenwriter (Chronicle, Bright) who was accused of emotional and sexual abuse by eight women, culminating in a 2019 report—though allegations had been circling online at least a few years before that. Since then both Moretz and Liang claim the film was rewritten and changed to their will and without his input after the fact.
Now, some may argue that none of that should have anything to do with the movie. The problem is, the first half of the movie is so misogynistic the connection feels beyond eerie. While a few are sympathetic, several of the men are downright evil to Maude, threatening to rape her, objectifying every inch of her body, demeaning her accomplishments and abilities because of her gender, it goes on and on. It’s very hard to watch, and knowing Landis had even a small hand in it makes it even worse.
Of course, it’s not like the director and actress didn’t know what they were doing. The misogyny is crucial to the story and has context. During the 1940s, women’s place in society was certainly worse than it is today—that probably goes double for the courageous women in the military. Plus, as the movie shifts into its second half, the way you feel about those men and everything they say has a very clear intention. Nevertheless, it’s uncomfortable in all the wrong ways, as well as the right ones.
But then Maude gets out of her bubble and the whole tone of the movie shifts. In an instant, she’s climbing across the bottom of the plane mid-air, punching creatures, and shooting up bad guys, in sequences that include massive explosions and wild flying stunts. Shadow in the Cloud goes from constricted and hard to watch to wide open, exciting and a story you very much want to ingest. It just so happens you had to put up with everything else beforehand.
Which, eventually, you realize is the point. Shadow in the Cloud reveals itself as a more-than-obvious metaphor for the rights of women, especially during the war. At first, they’re trapped, which is uncomfortable and difficult. When they’re given some freedom, they can accomplish anything and save the day. So those awful things the men say to Maude at the start become a part of a bigger statement. Plus, the hatred you feel toward the men makes you feel damn good when several of them meet a violent demise.
The question is, is it worth it? Does a movie need to show us, in such an intense manner and for such a length of time, that women are oppressed, ostracized, and demeaned? Isn’t that rather obvious? And, in the case of Shadow in the Cloud, does the fact that the second half is charged with catharsis, action, and meaning make it okay? I’m not really the right person to decide.
What I will say is as awful and uncomfortable as the first half of Shadow in the Cloud is, the second half is exhilarating and entertaining. So many wild things happen in such rapid succession that you see the film was made with serious blockbuster intentions. Moretz also shines throughout; she’s given a hugely emotional role with big peaks and valleys to explore, from helpless punching bag to de facto superhero and everything in-between. Liang’s direction gives the movie unstoppable momentum to the point where it all wraps up in under 90 minutes, credits included. The production design and visual effects do a nice job blending together to make you believe the time period and alien elements. And the very John Carpenter-influenced score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper gives the film a welcome level of intensity and energy.
All of that makes it clear Shadow in the Cloud has good intentions: take a rising star and put her in a genre-bending period piece packed with subtext and a hell of a lot of fantastic action. That Landis’ participation, or lack thereof, puts a haze over all of that is regrettable but inevitable, at least for some of the audience (and something Hollywood can be mindful of in the future). Admittedly though, most people probably won’t put that together. Yet almost anyone is sure to question whether showing verbal abuse to this extent, even if it’s hypothetically accurate for the time period and serves a purpose, is useful to modern society. Yes, the payoff here is grand but for some people, it won’t be enough. I’m still struggling with it.
Shadow in the Cloud is now playing in select theaters and is available on demand.
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