Being the only woman in a room is never comfortable, and sometimes it’s even frightening. On the flip side, having only one woman in a room is a sign of a problem. Aside from the inherent worry for safety and protection, there’s also the pressing question of representation and what it means to have to prove yourself in an environment that constantly undermines you.
Director Roseanne Liang investigates these feminist concerns in Shadow in the Cloud, a thrilling, campy exploration of female empowerment that pairs responsibility with misogyny in the high-stakes male-dominated space of a World War II bomber. The film proposes a deep inquiry into self-advocacy and systemic male chauvinism by pitting man against woman and troop against…gremlins?
Shadow in the Cloud opens with an informational cartoon about the mythological creatures of military lore that were said to wreak havoc on aircraft, thereby being the root of all problems that arise. It’s made clear that these monsters represent a lack of responsibility, the Air Force equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” With this sequence leading us into the narrative, it sets the stage for the film’s threshold for action and absurdity, only teasing a fraction of what’s to come.
When auxiliary service pilot Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) boards a B-17 called “The Fool’s Errand” wielding a top-secret package, she’s met with fervent pushback from the all-male crew. They don’t believe that she — or, as they make clear, any woman — is in the US Air Force, so they shove her into the plane’s ball turret while they discuss and attempt to discover the truth amongst themselves. Once she’s down there, Maude notices a dangerous stowaway has crept onboard. Yet she remains unbelieved, and this sets forth a riveting sequence of events that beautifully makes use of the film’s limited environment.
Nearly half of Shadow in the Cloud takes place within the ball turret, and the cinematography, by Kit Fraser, makes excellent use of the space. It’s utterly claustrophobic, yet the camera is able to capture the cramped gunner compartment from a multitude of dynamic angles that keep the film engaging in its unique ability to create tension. This compact environment is what makes Moretz’s performance so dynamic. She doesn’t have a lot to work with physically, therefore much of her performance relies almost entirely on expressions alone.
The limited real estate and the exclusivity of the camera remaining only within its boundaries means that the other performances are accomplished through voice acting. This is executed wonderfully by the supporting actors. They are able to manifest well-rounded characterization and amazing tangible performances with even less to work with than Moretz. We become familiar with their individual tones of voice and ways of speaking — equally a credit to Liang and co-writer Max Landis — that bring some form to roles that operate largely without expression or posture as backing.
The violence of misogyny presented throughout Shadow in the Cloud is both explicit and implicit. Upon entering the aircraft, Maude is called everything but her name: “dolly,” “dame,” “broad,” “girl,” “babe,” etc. The men rattle off sexually aggressive comments towards her, asking if she’s “a whore or a lesbian” and calling her “temper-menstrual.” Most violent of all are the deadly consequences that ensue from the undermining of her efficacy as a soldier, their unwillingness to believe her when she voices mortal concerns, and the way they choose to punish her for standing up for herself. Liang handles this thematic content well, balancing it with nuance and reality up until the film’s third act.
Once Maude is out of the ball turret and the contents of her package are revealed, the film picks up the pace in terms of the action. Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper‘s deep synthy score is incredible, producing a skittery electric beat that involves us in the events as they unfold. The action itself is effective, keeping us either on the edge of our seats or folded within ourselves, undecided if we want to engage with the confrontations or cope with the anxiety they cause. The film’s technical issues show most vividly here, however, as the CGI effects are often blatant in their presentation and are distractingly unrealistic.
What’s most disappointing about Shadow in the Cloud is that the nuanced screenplay becomes a corny fest of shallow female empowerment tropes. Each new event in the third act’s itinerary of action is, annoyingly, more ludicrous than the last. The film completely abandons the care, subtlety, and coherence that has defined the preceding portion of the story. What once was a thoughtful investigation into the deadly consequences of misogyny and the ways in which they manifest devolves into what feels like a Saturday Night Live skit written after the sixth shot of tequila. This unraveling unforgivingly cheapens the film, almost ridiculing the thoughtfulness it once implemented. As a result, we lose sight of what made the first half so special.
Shadow in the Cloud knits the themes of femininity, girl power, and misogyny together with a halfway articulate narrative. It’s a film that starts off exceedingly strong in its writing, performances, and cinematography before disappointingly betraying itself in its concluding act. Despite the film’s ultimate lack of success, though, it still delivers tremendous action sequences and harkens back, in a memorable way, to the gremlins infomercial that starts it off — reminding the audience of the dangers of absolved responsibility, especially in the context of systemic misogyny.