As Flight Officer Maude Garrett in Shadow In The Cloud, Chloë Grace Moretz faces not one, not two, not three, but four foes at once. Roseanne Liang’s pulpy genre film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, pits Moretz against the vicious all-male crew of a World War II B-17 bomber, who lock her in the Sperry turret, a tiny glass ball floating thousands of miles above the Earth and connected to the plane by one flimsy metal joint. Add the presence of Japanese stealth fighters to that over misogyny and claustrophobia, and Maude already has her hands full. But Liang throws one final, unexpected enemy into the mix, which plunges her character deeper into the nightmare: gremlins. Yes, there are motherfucking gremlins on this motherfucking plane.
The result is a wild ride blending bloody, gory critter horror with Mission Impossible-level stunts, the kind we rarely get to see performed by a woman — especially one who looks as outwardly fragile as Maude. I won’t spoil the scream-worthy stunts involved, but let’s just say that James Bond could never.
Liang rewrote the script after Max Landis, who wrote the early drafts, was accused of rape, assault, and psychological abuse by eight women in 2019 (According to Variety, Landis refused to comment on the allegations.) Liang says fighting multiple battles at once felt disturbingly familiar. “As a woman living in this society, you think one adversity is bad enough, and then you get one more, and then another, and it’s like when is this going to stop?” Liang told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the film’s TIFF premiere. “Trying to become a Hollywood action director, that [struggle] certainly connects with me. There’s a sense of proving myself that I share with [Maude.]”
The irony that her story of female empowerment has its roots with a man who allegedly perpetrated violence against women isn’t lost on the director. Landis doesn’t appear in any of the credits, and Liang stresses that he had nothing to do with production. But at the same time, she views the situation almost as poetic justice — like Maude, Liang has reclaimed her film as their own, overcoming adversity and pain to create something even more powerful.
“I did struggle,” she said.“I asked myself: Should I be doing this? I care deeply about feminist issues. I think deeply about being a woman of colour, and being an Asian woman, adjacent and parallel to all the institutional things that we’re thinking and learning about during this Black Lives Matter moment. It is a lot to deal with, but I also welcome it. I’ve made my peace with the fact that Max Landis wrote this movie. And I’ve made my peace with the fact that I also wrote this movie.”
And what a movie! Shadow In The Cloud is thrilling, funny, anxious, and over-the-top, embracing its more irresistibly campy qualities. “I wanted to find that nexus between soulful and meaningful and fun and spectacular,” Liang explained.
Moretz, who between The Amityville Horror, Carrie, Suspiria, Greta, and now Shadow In The Cloud, has started to build quite the horror resume, is compulsively watchable. Most of the film finds her crouched in the tiny space of the gunner pod, the camera honing in on her face as she uses the twitch of a muscle, the clenching of her jaw, to convey Maude’s various levels of distress — and there are many. While the men above her — including Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson, who plays one of the dickish flyboys — make aggressive sexual comments over the radio, she’s busy shooting down Japanese planes and fighting off a gremlin, whose claw rips through her shoulder. One particularly brutal scene has her threading a finger through a door latch to keep it closed, screaming as the pressure causes it to break yet refusing to let go.
Liang says she and Moretz had an instant connection, despite differences in age and background. “We come from completely different parts of the world, and different walks of life. Her as a Hollywood actress, who's been doing this since she was five, six years old, me as a Chinese New Zealander with immigrant parents from Hong Kong and New Zealand. But we aligned so much.”
What impressed the director most, however, was Moretz’s dedication to the work, which involved her dealing with constant claustrophobia from shooting in the minuscule Sperry turret for many, many hours a day.
“She’s actually claustrophobic,” Liang said. “She had to overcome being in enclosed spaces to do this and you can see that as it comes through in the tension of her movements, the tiny micro-expressions on her face. She is so truthful. As a filmmaker, you’re watching a movie thousands of times, over and over again. And what was amazing to me was I never got sick of watching Chloe. There’s some kind of crazy chemistry there.”
Going into the film, I was a little worried I might be in for another earnest retelling of history, placing a flawless can-do woman at the centre of an otherwise male-dominated chapter of World War II trivia. But while Liang’s film certainly does highlight the real contributions of the many forgotten women who joined up and gave their lives as Women Airforce Service Pilots during the conflict, it never forgets its DNA as a genre film. This isn’t a biopic or historically factual story — although gremlin lore was real among World War II pilots, as Liang discovered during her research.
“They’re an actual thing,” she said. “Some local pilots swear that they’re for real and draw diagrams the same way that people talk about aliens. It’s a cultural phenomenon. But when you think of our favourite monsters from horror movies like Alien or Predator, they all have a deeper significance and a deeper abject nightmarish feeling in our gut, and I like to think that this gremlin is another monster to add to that canon.”