TIFF 2020

Shadow in the Cloud review – downright revolutionary feminist actioner

This thrilling and empowering debut from Roseanne Liang finally understands how women can - and should - lead the action genre

It’s a real thrill to find, in what could have been yet another schlocky, derivative horror flick, a worthy successor to Alien’s iconic heroine Ellen Ripley: a complex, challenging woman in an environment that so often pretends we don’t exist. Shadow in the Cloud – a haywire WWII action movie with more twists than the Rainbow Road track in Mario Kart – relishes the chance to flip the narrative while preserving so much of the genre’s best conventions. It’s silly, sometimes scary, truly outstanding.

We are led by Chloë Grace Moretz as pilot Maude Garrett as she joins a B-17 Flying Fortress alongside a ragtag crew of men who live to belittle her. But she’s there to do her job, to protect a top secret package, and soon to deal with the evil presence running around in the clouds just outside. It may or may not be an army of gremlins (the year is 1943, when – that’s right – Roald Dahl released his first book: The Gremlins), and the men may or may not prefer to gaslight and patronise Maude instead of working together to defeat the monsters lurking just out of sight. Think The Twilight Zone, if feminism had been on anyone’s radar back then.

To reveal more of the plot details would ruin the ludicrous fun, since writer-director Roseanne Liang lives to surprise her audience. Shadow in the Cloud is the sort of outrageously entertaining thriller that demands a full-body reaction – whether you’re screeching along in a sold-out cinema, or clapping in disbelief from the comfort of your own home. It’s a true mark of success that in times of isolated virtual cinema-going, something played on a small screen could demand such an enormous response.

Moretz is incandescent as Maude – sharp and smart enough to hold her own against every man, entertaining enough to always hold the viewer’s attention at every turn. Liang’s vision is nothing short of revolutionary, as Shadow in the Cloud not only adapts the genre’s template to make sense for a female hero, but also makes it impossible for a male character to even try. The filmmaker flirts with familiar stereotypes – Women are hysterical! Men will save us! – but then pushes them into new territory when the monsters come out to play. These boys have done their best, but ultimately it’s up to Maude, and her top secret package, to save us all. Her body, her instincts, and her bravery are her greatest tools – habits that have always felt natural  to a woman, to take care of your loved ones as if the world depends on it, are now viewed as superpowers. Watching the men here as they witness Moretz tearing up the rulebook of onscreen violence makes for one of the most rewarding final acts in recent history.

That’s not to say this is the most intellectual or elegant action movie ever, but it doesn’t need to be. In a year plagued by a lack of enthusiasm from tired audiences, Shadow in the Cloud feels like a breath of fresh air and a fire-breathing dragon both at once. It’s genre cinema at its finest, a thrilling step forward for the women who have spent their lives whooping and dreaming behind the scenes, never quite in charge of who these heroes are, or how they fight. Finally, Ripley has some worthy company.

Shadow in the Cloud was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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