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By the time the genre-bending thriller “Shadow in the Cloud” ends, the movie’s heroine, Maude (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), has shot down fighter planes, climbed along the outside of a B-17 bomber in flight, fought hand to hand with a demonic “gremlin” and fiercely protected the secret package that put her in the air in the first place. That’s quite a list of accomplishments — especially given that Maude spends almost the entire first half of the film sitting still.
“Shadow in the Cloud” is set during World War II and follows Maude on a classified mission that requires her to catch a ride with a hostile international crew of military airmen. After she boards, she parks herself in a gun turret underneath the Flying Fortress, where through her headset she overhears the fellas making disgustingly lascivious comments about her.
Almost as a defense mechanism, Maude starts talking back. She tells the men her history — while keeping a few key details hidden. And she warns them about what she’s seeing from the turret: approaching enemy planes and a monster ripping their wings apart. The problem is that they’re not sure they believe anything she says.
For nearly this entire stretch of the movie, the camera stays fixed on Maude, with occasional cutaways to what she’s actually seeing as well as what she’s imagining in her head. The other characters are reduced to voices only. It’s a bold creative choice — and nearly a disastrous one.
“Shadow in the Cloud” was directed by Roseanne Liang, who reportedly reworked the original Max Landis script. In the wake of the recent sexual-assault allegations against Landis, Moretz and Liang have made it very clear that their movie is different from the one Landis wrote. So it’s hard to say who deserves the credit — or the blame — for how long the action remains static. If not for Moretz’s expressive face, the film might stall out before it really gets rolling.
It does get rolling though … and at maximum speed. Just when the crisis is at a fever pitch — with guns blazing, the gremlin cackling and Maude’s true mission in jeopardy — the heroine finally gets out of her chair. The 40 minutes that follow are filled with jaw-dropping feats of derring-do, one after another, with nary a pause.
“Shadow in the Cloud” has a rousing “women can be war heroes too” message, driven home during a closing-credits sequence that features old newsreel footage of ladies in uniform, set to a pounding Kate Bush song. And throughout the long climactic standoff between Maude and the monster, Liang lingers over images that frame the heroine’s femininity as a kind of superpower.
The movie’s themes feel a little forced at times; and the hefty chunks of exposition regarding Maude’s past ultimately seem less vital to the story than the long, long opening would suggest. (It doesn’t help that for much of that time Maude’s attempts at being surreptitious have her affecting a British accent that Moretz can’t quite pull off.)
But well-crafted action sequences can cover a lot of lapses. The second half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is pretty much nonstop spine-tingling. Try to think of the first part of this film as taxiing down a runway. It’s frustratingly slow, with a lot of starts and stops, and all the while the people in charge are talking to you through the speakers, telling you things you’ll likely forget. But soon? You’re flying.