Amid all the COVID-compromises and missed opportunities of this year’s TIFF, one of the most unfortunate is that the fest’s midnight-movie audience, always composed of more Regular Joe and Jane film-geeks than showbiz interlopers, won’t be able to cram cheek-by-jowl into a theater and watch Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud. Any movie capable of making a sole viewer in his living room erupt in shocked laughter, or lean forward, mouth agape, for minutes of action, would shake the foundation of the poor Ryerson Theater, and Liang would get the fanboy ovation she deserves.
What at first looks like a stagey showcase for star Chloe Grace Moretz, stuck in a single cramped location while all the drama happens out of sight, explodes mid-movie into — well, into a couple of things, and any pulp-loving genre fan who can accept completely absurd action in the name of a good time should probably just stop reading now and add Shadow to the must-see list. This ride is much more fun when you know nothing about it going in.
As for the rest of you, be advised that the only major surprise revealed in the following paragraphs is one the film wants you to be ready for: A pre-credits cartoon in the style of old military-education films raises the subject of gremlins, the devilish little personification of soldiers’ carelessness. Here, gremlins are no metaphor. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
It’s 1943, nighttime on an air base in Auckland, and Moretz’s Maude Garrett walks up to a plane to inform its startled crew she has been given orders to join them. She carries a sturdy leather satchel whose contents are secret. The flyboys are skeptical. They can read the orders she hands them, but no way will they accept that this dame deserves to be called Flight Officer Garrett, no matter how many transport planes she may have flown. Not knowing what to do with her, Captain Reeves (Callan Mulvey) sticks her in the Sperry turret — the exposed little bubble of glass on the belly of the plane, where a gunner would normally sit. It’s not big enough for her and her cargo, so Quaid (Taylor John Smith), the only airman not joining in the disrespectful banter, promises he’ll keep the box safe.
Stuck in that bubble as the plane takes off, Garrett has a radio headset the boys have forgotten about. She listens to their lewd talk for a minute before reminding them she can hear. Defensive, they shift gears, calling her hysterical and claiming she’s imagining things when she sees something amiss with the plane. For quite a stretch, this looks like what the movie will be: a tight-quarters, dialogue-dependent look at a woman standing up for herself and doing her job despite interference.
Here’s where we’re forced to note that the script for what’s shaping up to be a feminist empowerment tale was dreamed up by Max Landis, son of John, who has been accused by many women of everything from verbal belittlement to sexual assault. Moretz told interviewers last year that, after several rewrites by Liang, the movie was “completely distanced” from Landis. He isn’t mentioned in the “About the Filmmakers” section of press notes, and in the full credits list, a suspicious line break bumps him away from Liang’s screenplay credit — and onto the next page. (Then again, that list doesn’t include credits for director, casting or costume design, so maybe that’s less a sly diss than ordinary sloppiness.)
Garrett has more to worry about the patriarchy. As the plane rises through the clouds, she briefly glimpses something in the air. It could be civilian, could be Japanese air force. In the compression-artifacty night sky of the video stream provided for review, it could just as easily have been the Millennium Falcon.That’s not all. She briefly sees the shape of a large animal on the underside of a wing. Fans of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” will relish this film’s riff, in which Garrett gets more and more proof that the monster is real, all the while being mocked by the men inside who can’t see it.
They’ll see it soon enough. But first, Liang stages a jaw-droppingly unrealistic action sequence that, amazingly, works. Partly because we’ve spent so long in that turret aligning ourselves with Garrett’s completely believable concerns, partly thanks to the director’s staging, and partly because it’s so much more fun than much of the similar stuff we endure in big summer blockbusters, this set piece not only doesn’t kill the film — it opens the door to even more outrageousness.
The rest of the film is pretty non-stop action, carving a place for Garrett alongside can-do heroines like Ellen Ripley. But the Alien movies gave Ripley more rest breaks: Having uncovered plot-crucial secrets and had its emotional exchanges while Garrett was still bubble-bound, the film has no reason to interrupt the escalating violence now. It’s a marvel these men ever survived a combat mission without her, gremlins or no.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Production companies: Automatik, Four Knights Film
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Byron Cole, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowsky
Director: Roseanne Liang
Screenwriters: Roseanne Liang, Max Landis
Producers: Tom Hern, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Kelly McCormick, Fred Berger
Executive producers: Sandra Yee Ling, Terry Dougas, Paris Kassidokostas-Lastis, Jean-Luc De Fanti
Director of photography: Kit Fraser
Production designer: Gary Mackay
Costume designer: Kristin Seth
Editor: Tom Eagles
Composer: Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper
Casting director: Chelsea Ellis Bloch
Sales: Endeavor Content