Shadow in the Cloud

The Not Left Handed Either Film Guide finds itself momentarily in personal domestic isolation right now, no prizes for guessing why. So while I would love to be in the cinema watching the latest films from Pedro Almodóvar, Kenneth Branagh and Joanna Hogg, that is not currently possible.

So it is that I turn to Amazon Prime where I found this curio. Shadow in the Cloud debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020, opening in theatres shortly afterwards but, this being a time when much of the world was in a situation similar to the one I find myself in now, it didn’t have a great chance to find an audience. This is a shame because, despite some sad aspects behind the production beyond it being released in 2020 and some big narrative leaps, the film has an ambition that deserves to be rewarded.

We’ll get to the context later but the best way of describing Shadow in the Cloud in broad terms is as a feminist parable. Interestingly though, while I spend a lot of my time criticising movies for not meeting appropriate standards in this respect, here I am going to call it out for trying to hard. Don’t get me wrong, it has a great female hero overcoming incredible odds and showing the men around her that they were wrong to underestimate her and all of this is great, but it doesn’t have any subtlety in how it handles this. Watching it I did begin to suspect it was written by a man desperate for others to see how great he is at understanding women’s issues. (Reading those last words back, I do recognise how you could think the same thing about my blog but I hope you’ll trust that I’m coming from a different place.) Seriously, this movie starts with the female protagonist calling out casual, everyday chauvinism but ends with her sitting atop a fiery crater, enemy soldiers and other worldly attackers defeated, where she then pulls a [redacted] out of a box and starts [redacted]. I don’t want to spoil this final scene but watch the film and you’ll see it is both a genuinely strong moment of womanhood and a borderline parody of strong female action heroes.

There is more to this than my own reading of the film because sure enough the script is by Max Landis, who has never been one to show reservation in any of his work. Landis was an immediate focus for the media when he came on the scene due to his father being the successful 80s director John Landis, and he has long sought to challenge genre conventions with his writing. His voice has appeared on various web commentaries where he has been unhesitant in calling out other filmmakers and in cinema he has given us things like Chronicle, American Ultra, Victor Frankenstein and Bright, all of which have their own failings suggesting that he isn’t quite the authority on this stuff that he thinks he is. In 2013 Landis was also widely accused of misogyny after saying awful things about his previous girlfriends in an interview. It saddens me because men should want to write strong stories for women without their own agenda but I fear that Shadow in the Cloud may in part be Landis typically overconfident response to this criticism, especially when you learn that he has subsequently been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault which came out while this film was in production.

This being the case, director Roseanne Liang and star Chlöe Grace Moretz have both rightly made moves to distance themselves from Landis and his contributions, saying the script was heavily rewritten. Fortunately, despite the extremes of its narrative, I do think the influence of its female director largely wins through where it needs to. The story has 1940’s flight officer Maude Garrett (Moretz) boarding a B-17 Bomber with a sensitive package to find she is soon confined to the ball gun turret beneath the plane. While there, as mentioned, she hears the male crew discussing her as a sex object on the radio but her response is not one of outrage or resignation but of calm, confident condemnation which does feel like a women’s voice. Later when she has to use the gun carriage she is sitting in because enemy fighters approach, there is no hesitation or confusion before the action, she is not overcoming any female limitations imposed by a patriarchal wartime society, she is just doing what any experienced flyer would do. Similarly when gremlins attack (I kid you not) she greets this challenge with the same strength.

Moretz is really good in the lead, and is actually the only one on screen for much of the film as she is confined below the hull. Whether this is a stylistic or a budgetary decision it does give the film a different approach. When she does eventually leave her bubble things do get a bit silly but we’ve already seen her battle giant gnarly bat creatures by this point so you do just go with it.

In the end Shadow in the Cloud feels like a random but thinly veiled mix of Memphis Belle, The Twilight Zone and Alien. Still, its own Ripley character ticks all the boxes she needs to, and the film just about succeeds in leaving behind its heritage and baggage to present an entertaining, if daft, adventure. Whatever the motivation and excesses, the message of female strength does stop it becoming fatuous.

I say get on board, especially if you can’t get out right now.

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