From Vertical Entertainment’s official description “lurking in the shadows, something sinister is tearing at the heart of the plane,” Roseanne Liang’s “Shadow in the Cloud” sounds like it’s going to be a creepy, slow-moving “haunted plane” movie. It’s absolutely not. Be ready for anything.
Opening in select theaters and video on demand on Jan. 1, “Shadow in the Cloud” begins in 1943 as Maude (Chloë Grace Moretz) marches down a foggy runway in New Zealand carrying an oblong package.
Her left arm in a sling, she makes her way on board a plane called “The Fool’s Errand.” The male crew immediately begin attacking her with the likes of “What are you doing here? No dames on the plane!”
But Maude has orders from high up to transport the package. The package is never, under any circumstances, to be opened, and it is the most important thing on the plane.
With no place for her to sit, the men make her crawl into the turret in the belly of the plane. It’s a tiny, constricted space, where Maude must position herself as if with her feet in stirrups about to give birth.
Fortunately, she’s an experienced flier and knows as much, if not more, than her male fellow-travelers. She listens in on the com, and endures more nasty language about her womanhood, then lets them know she can hear them.
Liang co-wrote the movie with veteran genre screenwriter Max Landis (“Chronicle,” “Bright”), who presumably contributed some of the authentic man-speak.
Maude stays in the turret until about the 50-minute mark of this speedy, 83-minute movie, and the camera never leaves her. We hear other voices, and Maude mentally matches the voices with the faces she briefly saw as she boarded.
Director Liang keeps things moving and tense through sheer innovative camerawork and cutting.
While Maude is in the turret, the men — of course — open the package and Maude sees the “something sinister” lurking in the shadows. Those who have seen Richard Matheson’s famous “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (remade for the 1983 “Twilight Zone: The Movie”) know what it is.
A terrific little retro-style animated wartime cartoon in front of the opening titles also warns: Beware of gremlins.
When Maude does leave the turret, the movie switches from measured and controlled to wildly unbelievable. She doesn’t climb back inside the plane; she kicks out a window and crawls along the belly of the plane, upside down, tens of thousands of feet in the air, while Japanese Zeros fire around her.
The switch is a bit drastic, and it may cause some to wonder “WTF?” and give up. But stick with it. Filmmakers absolutely know WTF the movie’s up to.
A few fights, shootouts, bodies falling through clouds, crashes, and an emergency landing later, the movie unleashes its most 21st century imagery. In the final moments, Maude commits two primal acts: one brutally violent, the next, nurturing.
To be sure, “Shadow in the Cloud” comes up with a fitting feminine version of the meme “hold my beer.”
Liang’s film isn’t as polite as other heroic women-driven movies, including last week’s “Wonder Woman 1984.” Here, Maude is the only one who knows what’s going on and what to do about it, and the men had better shape up and get in line behind her.
In one shot, the cartoon pinup girl painted on the side of the plane burns, peeling and turning to black ash.
It’s a refreshingly un-subtle message, and perhaps an appropriate way to kick off 2021. But the movie also has a strong 1980s vibe, with practical monster effects and a throwback John Carpenter-style synthesizer score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, as well as a 1940s war movie gung-ho energy.
At times these different energies seem like separate parts of a movie, rather than pieces of a whole.
Of course, no one ever said that a movie this entertainingly demented had to be cohesive. But “Shadow in the Cloud” might have been more effective if it could have somehow warned that, after adhering to strict rules for two-thirds of its running time, it was going to shatter those rules, and that that’s OK.
Shadow in the Cloud
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale
Written by: Max Landis, Roseanne Liang
Directed by: Roseanne Liang
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes