The best that can be said about Shadow in the Cloud is that it’s not the most shameful thing a Landis has done with a Twilight Zone idea. Here, co-writer Max Landis — who has, since 2017, been notoriously, voluminously and credibly accused of abusing women — wraps a story from the thrice-dramatized “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode in a cloak of woke that actually just swaddles Landis’s wish-fulfillment fantasies for a reprieve from his real-world wrongdoings.
Director / co-writer Roseanne Liang has diligently tried to distance this project from Landis, alleging numerous rewrites of his work and asserting that his onscreen writing credit is a professional-guild mandate. But as a closing-credits montage of women in military combat accompanies Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” it feels less like a celebration of confidence for the tenacious World War II heroine (capably played by Chloë Grace Moretz) and more like her capitulation to a penitent, cowardly fella in her life. Plus, you know … no one forced the 2019 production of a script by a guy blackballed by Hollywood since 2017, so …
Anyone familiar with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and wondering how all of this jibes with a malevolent creature destroying a plane, well … Shadow in the Cloud would quite frankly be better off without that narrative element (and, from someone else’s typewriter, interested in more than feminist windowdressing). But when, at least since 2012’s Chronicle, has Landis not cribbed someone else’s ideas and crammed them into his own curiously flat package?
Moretz is Maude Garrett, a Flight Officer in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and a last-second addition to the flight crew of a B-17 bomber headed from New Zealand to Samoa circa 1943. Garrett rolls up on the tarmac with a broken arm, a black eye and a bag of top-secret documents she’s been tasked to protect at all costs and hand-deliver. Naturally, Garrett is met by bad-behavior braggadocio from the otherwise male crew, whose misogyny is mostly faceless given the clearly limited budget (although previous Moretz co-star Nick Robinson plays one of the crewmen, providing a 5th Wave reunion for which no one asked).
Garrett is already on tenterhooks before she sees something suspicious skittering around the plane prior to takeoff. Stuffed into the bottom turret-gunner bubble, Garrett is trapped by malfunctioning parts on the bubble doors and attacked by a sharp-clawed creature we could call Cloverfield Variant #62. In line with Richard Matheson’s original “Nightmare,” no one buys Garrett’s reports of a gremlin on the wing yanking off crucial parts willy nilly. Neither do they buy her sighting of a Japanese scouting plane … until Zeroes are right on their six. And there is, of course, the question of what’s really in her top-secret stash — a revelation certain, even at this early stage of 2021, to be among one of the year’s more risible.
Shadow is clearly trying to do for Moretz what Underwater did for Kristen Stewart. Similarly, you get an actress doing what she can with thin genre material. Moretz brings conviction and clarity to Garrett’s fight-or-flight moment of fear and desperation that ultimately brings her to the plane, and she resurrects her Hit-Girl hardassery in scenes of hand-to-hand or gun-to-gun combat. Moretz has the right sort of joie de vivre for such junk, Liang generates a modest amount of claustrophobic dread in the bubble, and there is admittedly one joyously stupid defiance of science bound to end up in a Fast & Furious movie. But all it amounts to is a decent shade of red globbed and smeared on a pig’s mouth. Garrett eventually tries escaping the turret bubble, but Liang’s camera choices upend the moment’s precariousness. Neither does Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s incongruously anachronistic score goose you into a goofy good time, instead wandering into Stranger Things temp-track territory. (Ditto a deadening moment of riot-grrrl rock in a key confrontation inside the fuselage.)
Again, the finale does more to contradict the convictions Garrett forms in her trial by fire and the idea that if she can survive this on her own, she’ll be fine elsewhere. By tying Garrett’s happy ending to a man mustering approximately 1/100th of her heroics, Max Landis stays giant strides short of children dying from his father’s filmmaking negligence. But producing a bogus story about female empowerment written by a man who has used his privilege and power to instead rob women of it remains irredeemably gross.