Well, here it is, the most ridiculous movie I’ve seen from TIFF this year. Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Maude Garrett, a female pilot in World War II tasked with a secret mission. She joins a transport flight from New Zealand to Samoa, her arm in a sling and carrying a mysterious bag. The men aboard the plane, dubbed “The Fool’s Errand” in case you’re wondering how this mission goes, are not happy to see her and immediately begin harassing her. Maude is separated from her bag and forced to sit in a gunner’s turret, where she can clearly hear the men discussing her in base, sexist terms. As beginnings go, this isn’t bad. Moretz is a strong enough performer to hold the screen by herself, her co-stars heard over the radio for the first act of the movie. And the mystery of her mission and her bag is interesting, especially as the men grow more doubtful and paranoid about her and debate opening her bag.
Shadow in the Cloud is something of a curiosity object, a piece of flotsam left over from Max Landis’s attempted career comeback. Though writer/director Roseanne Liang reworked the script, Landis remains the top-billed screenwriter, and Shadow is a classic Landis “this meets that” pitch. In this case, it’s “World War II spy thriller meets The Twilight Zone” (and boy is a Landis invoking The Twilight Zone a choice). You see, Maude isn’t just on a mysterious mission, she is also fighting an actual gremlin intent on destroying the plane. Yes, that’s right, Shadow in the Cloud is basically “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, in which William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of a passenger plane, set on a World War II bomber.
It’s a credit to Liang’s direction and Moretz’s performance that Shadow works for even a minute, but it works quite well for the first half of the film. The tension rises as the men, heard and not seen in the plane above Maude’s turret, argue about what to do with her and her bag. Maude is of mysterious origin and purpose, her steely determination reads as that of a soldier intent on completing a critical mission. For its first half, Shadow is an effective spy thriller cum creature feature, as Maude fights the gremlin off even as the men continue to argue about her fate. She is under attack on all sides, fighting the gremlin, the other airmen, and a troop of Japanese Zeros targeting their plane. It seems her survival will depend on her capability and ingenuity in such a small space.
And then we find out what’s in the bag, and even in a movie with a GREMLIN, it’s such an unbelievable Macguffin it prompts a chuckle of disbelief. It also completely undercuts the tension and drama of the first half of the movie, reframing Maude’s motivations in a less interesting way, and ensuring the survival of those characters connected to the Macguffin, because, well, a movie like this would NEVER dispose of it. At this point, Shadow stops being a spy thriller with a monster twist and becomes a standard survival flick with much lower stakes since we know Maude and at least one other character will survive. How can we know this, though, based solely on the contents of Maude’s bag? Because genre movies with boppy synth scores don’t go as dark as Shadow would have to in order to maintain dramatic tension. The tonal clues are all wrong.
The first half of Shadow is quite good, and Moretz is compelling throughout, but that big reveal kills it. And while I have no doubt Liang put her own stamp on the story, that big reveal feels like Landis trying to “do it better” after criticizing a film with a similar twist. Ultimately, Shadow in the Cloud can’t escape the specter of Max Landis and his creepy baggage regarding women and “strong female characters”. If you want to see a bonkers movie that completely flies off the rails halfway through, then this is the movie for you. Otherwise, Shadow in the Cloud, like most of Landis’s output, strands talented performers in an increasingly silly plot. It’s a complete waste of potential.