If my father were John Landis I don’t think I’d be quite so eager to make a movie about a plane crash, much less one so clearly channeling The Twilight Zone. Still, there are parts of director Roseanne Liang and co-writer and alleged serial rapist Max Landis’s Shadow in the Cloud that work. The tight, claustrophobic prison of the B-17 flying fortress’s ventral gun turret in which roughly a third of the film takes place is an effective pressure cooker. The elements of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s score which hew most obviously to the beacon of Mica Levi’s slow, pulsating synth work on Under the Skin aren’t bad as a sort of microwaved version of the original, and the interior of the plane itself is rich with detail, the costumes of the crew and enigmatic passenger Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) believably broken in. There’s some strong foley work, too, for the sounds of mechanical distress and air to air gunfire. Solid, believable stuff in the vein of Alien or the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” from which Cloud clearly takes inspiration.
Then there’s the rest of the movie. At the precise moment the film should double down on its claustrophobic conceit, it throws it away in favor of a frankly absurd action scene. Liang and Landis mix Looney Tunes hijinks at eighty thousand feet, shoddy special effects including some of the worst green screen action of the past few years, and treacly girl power feminism into an unappetizing mess as Moretz swings like Tarzan along the underbelly of the bomber and any sense of immersion is immediately whipped away by the wind roaring over the aircraft’s hull. Even before this sudden implosion of tone, though, Shadow in the Cloud has precious little trust in its audience, its frequent cutaways undermining Maude’s isolation in the turret and breaking the suspense of her severely limited line of sight. Liang’s decision to cut to a jarring exterior shot when Moretz finally has a chance to cut loose and get her teeth into some real emotional material is the final nail in the coffin, completely deadening the character’s development.
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That the film is a creature feature at all feels like a weak afterthought, tacked onto a movie which at less than an hour and a half long somehow still manages to feel overstuffed. Even with largely undercooked and uninteresting twists and turns abounding, though, the monster still manages to feel overexposed, its menace draining away a little more each time it scuttles across a shot. By the time we come face to face with the thing, foreshadowed by a truly lifeless mock-informational cartoon in the vein of the Bugs Bunny short Falling Hare, it’s about as frightening as any other generic ghoul or post-Blade II vampire. Even an unoriginal design might have been frightening if Liang had shown more restraint in bringing the creature onscreen, but what little mystique it has is rapidly squandered. Its first attack on Maude, a scene anchored by immediate, dirty practicality and the truly nail-biting endangerment of a finger, is far and away its best moment.
Shadow in the Cloud is thin gruel, its handful of effective moments relentlessly undercut by its overfull story and its creators’ fundamental belief that audiences need to have everything spelled out for them. Even the genuinely naturalistic and heartwarming image which closes the film can’t make up for the tedious Strong Female Character slog of its back half, or the film’s lukewarm and disinterested attempts to engage subjects like domestic violence, racism, and feminine independence. As is always the case with movies like these, the actions which render women respectable are actions we associate with men. Violence. Dominance. Cool rationality. Shadow, for all its posturing, has nothing to add to that already tired conversation, and watching Landis try to conceal his own alleged predation behind a thin understanding of sexual harassment is filmmaking at its most repulsive.