SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger,  Kelly McCormick and Tom Hern   Director: Roseanne Liang   Screenplay: Max Landis and Roseanne Liang   Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll and John Witkowski    Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Grade: C+

Roseanne Liang’s World War II adventure kicks off with a supposed 1940s cartoon warning US Air Force maintenance workers to stay on their toes and not blame “gremlins,” instead of their own laziness, when things go wrong.  That seems appropriate since “Shadow in the Cloud” is pretty much a live-action cartoon itself.  Clocking in at a mere seventy-five minutes without the final credits crawl, one could argue that, like a Looney Tunes short, it barely qualifies as a feature, either.

But if you’re willing to turn off your brain for the mercifully brief duration, you might enjoy this serving of utterly ludicrous but zippy nonsense.

The script by Max Landis and Liang takes a leaf from Richard Matheson’s short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (made from Matheson’s own script by Richard Donner as a famous “Twilight Zone” episode with William Shatner in 1963, and then recycled by George Miller as the best episode of 1983’s omnibus “Twilight Zone” movie, with a stunning performance by John Lithgow), except in this case the protagonist is female—though as circumstances gradually reveal, she might be as unhinged as the character Shatner and Lithgow played. 

She’s Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), who at the last minute clambers onto a B-17 Flying Fortress with the legend “The Fool’s Errand” emblazoned on the side that’s leaving Aukland, New Zealand, for a routine transport flight to Samoa.   The year is 1943, and she carries papers indentifying her as a British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force captain carrying a sealed box containing some top-secret material—and ordering the crew to transport her and the parcel to their destination.

The crew—Captain John Reeves (Callan Mulvey), co-pilot Anton Williams (Beulah Koale), staff sergeant Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith), baby-faced Stu Beckell (Nick Robinson), loudmouth Terence Taggart (Byron Coll), navigator Bradley Finch (Joe Witkowski) and stern Tommy Dorn (Benedict Wall)—are a macho bunch none too happy about having a female on board, and free with sexist remarks.  Only Quaid is remotely courteous. 

They consign Garrett to the machine-gun turret on the plane’s underside, not realizing that the microphones remain on and she can hear all their disparaging banter.  For a long period the camera focuses on her, isolated in the spherical bubble, trading snarky remarks with them and growing increasingly irritated, especially because the cramped space has required her to leave her precious box in Quaid’s care.  This section of the film gives Moretz the opportunity to do a virtual one-woman turn, which might remind you of the tour de force performance given by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “7500,” though here the horror is leavened by absurdity.

That’s because Garrett claims to see the shadow of some sort of creature against the wing of the plane.  The crew treats that idea with derision.  They’re equally dismissive of her insistence that a Japanese fighter is closing in on them, believing the enemy lacks the capacity to fly such a distance from their known bases.  But she’s right on both counts, and then proves her mettle by using the machine guns to take out the place even as some crew members see the gremlin too.  To add to all the consternation, the content of the box she’s brought aboard is revealed, and is something much more shocking than secret papers.

To say that the picture grows more and more ridiculous as all of this mounts up would be an understatement, and as the tension escalates it rejoices in becoming increasingly nutty, down to a hand-to-hand fight at the very end.  While the Japanese fighters are standard-issue,  the gremlin on board is nothing like the little beasties of the forties or the raggedy, slow-moving creature of Donner’s “Twilight Zone” episode.   It’s a winged CGI fabrication that looks like a giant ravenous bat, or a malevolent demon.  In the process of fighting it, most of the crew perish in various unpleasant ways.

“Shadow in the Cloud” is marked by expert work from the WETA staff in New Zealand (the visual effects were produced by Steven McKendry and supervised by Stephen Unterfranz).  The rest of the technical work, including Kit Fraser’s cinematography and Gary Mackay’s production design, is effective, especially considering what was probably a relatively modest budget, and Tom Eagles’ editing is sharp—accounting for the brief running-time—while Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s score adds to the intensity.

The male cast of the film is frankly unimpressive—just a bunch of guys playing stock characters without much distinction.  But Moretz takes charge with her wildly energetic turn, enjoying the opportunity to indulge in some effects-laden stunts that are hilariously over-the-top, and Liang proves that she can handle action scenes with the best of them.

This is an outlandishly silly movie, but if your tolerance of wacky mayhem is high, you might enjoy the ride. At the very least, it will make you laugh occasionally, though you might be embarrassed to admit it.