starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Beulah Koae, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson
written by Max Landis and Roseanne Liang
directed by Roseanne Liang
by Walter Chaw Roseanne Liang's Shadow in the Cloud opens with a vintage training cartoon for WWII flyboys about the dangers of gremlins clogging their bombers' works, indicating that whatever this film seems like it's going to be about, it's going to have a monster in it. And it's inevitable, once you know that, for you to think about how one of the episodes recreated for Twilight Zone: The Movie was "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which a gremlin on the wing of a plane terrorizes a nervous flier. And then how John Landis co-directed that film (though not that segment) and, through unimaginable carelessness compounded by his unfettered ego and well-documented lack of a moral compass, instructed a helicopter pilot to fly too low over illegal pyrotechnics, resulting in the chopper's crash and the brutal death of leading man Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen. Child actors who shouldn't have been working at that time of night due to labour laws, as it happens, but, shhh!: an artiste is at work. It's all on video (Zapruder-esque footage of the crash aired multiple times on the 6 o'clock news), there was a trial with damning testimony, the film's producers--including Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy--fled the country and refused to testify (because, in Spielberg's case, he was "too important" to do so (the judge agreed)), and then, the world the way that it is, Landis got off. He even went to Morrow's funeral uninvited to spew some blubbery words, and now, in the late-Leni Reifenstahl phase of his career, he's treated like an elder statesman allowed to reframe his legacy. Let me help you with that. His legacy is three things, each of them true: he is the director of An American Werewolf in London and a couple of obnoxious comedies people like for some reason; he is a murderer; and he is the father of one of the all-too-predictably worst people on the planet.
Max Landis wrote the initial screenplay for Shadow in the Cloud, but if its hook--that there are gremlins on a plane and no one believes the person who sees them--was always the same, then not only is it not that exceptional a concept, but the script also probably sold on the basis of his father having tackled this already (if only as a passenger on the George Miller express). Hollywood likes dynastic storylines in front of and behind the camera. The "twist" here is that it's simultaneously that episode of "Amazing Stories" starring Casey Siezmaszko as a turret gunner stuck in the belly nest of his bomber. (Directed by Steven Spielberg, naturally.) So in 2019, when the project gets off the ground (ha), Roseanne Liang, an Asian-New Zealand filmmaker, came aboard to direct and, it's been broadly reported, extensively rewrite the meat of the script to zero in on the sexism of the flight crew and the resilience of the main character, Maude (Chloe Grace Moretz). According to Liang, Moretz, and producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones in a series of publicity interviews, Landis was sent to the cornfield, and the production thought of itself as independent of his influence. Liang told IndieWire:
It was the first opportunity that I had to make a genre film of this scale for a wider and traditional audience. Coming from New Zealand, I don't think we often get an opportunity like this, so any opportunity I got, especially a project that is as off the wall and interesting as this one, was something that I felt like I needed to jump at.
I would only add that being an Asian woman would also make helming a big-budget actioner in the West something rare and precious indeed. I'm listening to and believing the women attached to this project about the limited and consequently diminished involvement of any Landis, because it checks out for me. I would add that the fact that I've spent the bulk of this review talking about vile men speaks exactly to how Liang and Moretz were further victimized by these men, this time with our help. Shadow in the Cloud should be cause for celebration, not the object of easy disdain. Landis isn't hurt by you not watching this film--he's been paid and his further prospects are dim and doomed to this kind of well-earned opprobrium. The hint of his stench was enough to torpedo this picture; the subsumed bias, racism, and misogyny finished the job. Liang is terribly injured by this, because Shadow in the Cloud is really good.
More than really good, it's really good in precisely the same way it would have been had Joe Dante directed it. And if Joe Dante had directed Shadow in the Cloud, the mass arrayed to shit on it right now would be celebrating it for the same faults they're finding with it. What I'm saying is, it's a lot easier to dismiss the work of an Asian woman than it is a white man, especially in a genre where we expect her to fail. Shadow in the Cloud is weird and lurid, with cut-scenes that reminded me of the ones George Romero used in Creepshow and Tobe Hooper used in Funhouse. It has an undeniable flair and energy as Maude boards a bomber for a secret mission, carrying a highly-confidential satchel with the instruction that no one should open it. She's separated from the satchel immediately by the crew of the ship, a throng of men's-men whose worst instincts are inflamed by the stress of war and, you know, by the fact that they're a bunch of men together in a tin can with a young woman. They stick her in the belly turret and lock the hatch, and the first half of the film is Maude listening in on their disgusting comments about what they'd like to do to her and their open disrespect of her rank and experience, and they finally silence her radio when she warns them that Japanese aircraft are in the vicinity and, oh yeah, that a monster is definitely taking apart their engines. If you wanted to go deep on the physical spaces in this film, the quieting of a woman's voice when she's speaking of monsters crawling around in the bellies of war machines, you could do so--and the film would reward that attention. Shadow in the Cloud is no less a workplace melodrama than The Silence of the Lambs, and it occurs to me that its use of colour and themes of outcasts pulling "normals" into their weird orbit are things that would not have been alien to Jonathan Demme.
Moretz is fantastic in this role. Her Maude is startled though not panicked, professional in the face of all that tedious abuse, and when things start going from bad to worse, she proves herself capable and resourceful. She rewires her turret and repeatedly saves the crew from themselves, and she is a hero without sacrificing her femininity. Liang is adept with an action sequence, too. A moment where Maude needs to do an "airwalk" to retrieve a parcel hanging by a strap is giddily suspenseful and never sacrifices visual coherence along the way. Story points are revealed that lead to a closing shot surgically designed to provoke the kind of men who would like to see women meek and domestic, and the full tragedy of Shadow in the Cloud being ignored for its link to a pronounced piece of shit suddenly becomes clear. There are several movies right now that are trying to hit this note of empowerment without proselytizing, to bring up stuff from the basement without also emptying the basement. Liang makes the choice with her film to go big--to go bigger than big, to make the kind of movie that would be getting a critical tongue-bath if it starred Nicolas Cage. There's a glorious moment where Maude falls out of the airplane and an exploding Zero blows her back into it. There's another where Maude rolls up her sleeves and starts a punch-fight with a gremlin. And then there's that last, frankly iconic image. Ripley ain't got nothin' on Maude, and Liang deserves another shot at this with a project not saddled with a repulsive toad from a family of them as its credited co-author. I mean, at the end of the day, championing the ferocious things oppressed artists build from the ruins of a failed structure is actually what all the shouting is about.