Shadow in the Cloud

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Shadow in the Cloud first published by

Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud begins with a wartime information cartoon. Snoozing and drinking when he should be doing maintenance work on a plane, an airman blames his carelessness – and the ensuing damage done to the plane – on a gremlin (visualised as a precursor to the late Sixties character Batfink), only for a narrating voice to inform him: “Gremlins are all in your head. We owe it to our boys to stay focused. It’s not critters who cause accidents – it’s careless airmen.” 

This opening sequence is programmatic in multiple ways, some obvious, some rather less so. For it immediately establishes the film’s setting in the arena of the Second World War, and introduces a mischievous monster that, though presented as real, also comes with an explicitly metaphorical or psychological tenor. It introduces a cartoonish kind of physics that will certainly be reasserted in the gravity-defying, plausibility-denying acrobatics of the subsequent narrative. Most of all, though, in expressly referring to “our boys” and “airmen”, the cartoon depicts the evidently fragile apparatus of the Air Force, where laziness and inattention can cost lives, as an all-male affair from which women appear to be excluded.  

This last point is confirmed as the live-action story begins. For as Flying Officer Garrett Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), with her left arm in a sling and a bruise on her face, climbs into an old B-17 Bomber called The Fool’s Errand – noting on her way the painting on the plane’s side of a lingerie-clad woman sitting with her legs open astride a phallic, grinning bomb – she is immediately greeted with disbelief and derision, chauvinism and aggression by most of the seven men on board. “Hey there baby, I believe the powder room is that away”, says Private Tommy Dorn (Benedict Wall).”Hey, is that an actual girl on board?”, asks Private Stu Beckell (Nick Robinson). “This isn’t a joyride missy, get off now!”, screams Technical Sergeant Terrence Taggart (Byron Coll) in her face, before angrily trying to manhandle her out of the plane. The only thing that compels Captain John Reeves (Callan Mulvey) to let Garrett stay on board is the commissioning orders that she carries on her person assigning her to the flight, with further instructions that the mysterious contents of her radio bag are kept upright, under guard and “strictly confidential.” 

Confined to the ball turret beneath the plane’s undercarriage, Garrett overhears some of the men on the radio objectifying her in reductive, misogynistic terms. This sexism intersects with a casual racism, as navigator Lieutenant Bradley Finch (Joe Witkowski) casually refers to the Maori co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Anton Williams (Beulah Koale) as a “golliwog” and an “ape”. So Garrett is trapped not just in a tiny hatch that Beckell describes as “a little plastic aquarium over a death drop”, but also in a closed system of white patriarchy where she has to fight just to be heard. This might be an Allied crew of British, American and New Zealand airmen transporting equipment from New Zealand to Samoa, but the only ally that Garrett has on board is the gentlemanly Staff Sergeant Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith). In a dynamic that will seem all too familiar to women or people of colour, Garrett will have to work at least twice as hard as the others on board at fixing, fighting and flying just to earn herself a modicum of respect. They might, both metaphorically and literally, look down on her, but she is smarter, and more capable, than any of them.  

As we learn more about Garrett’s hidden backstory (and her injuries), it becomes clear that the hostile ecosystem of the plane’s interior is a mere microcosm of what this young woman is trying to escape on the ground. For she has always been surrounded by controlling, abusive men, and she is desperate to soar above all that and find her own small space – some room of her own – in a world that is broadly unaccommodating to women. From her turret, she spots both Japanese planes lurking in the clouds below, and a strange bat-like creature dismantling the plane’s engines – but in both cases the alarms that she raises are ridiculed and dismissed by the crew until they can no longer be ignored, when everyone suddenly finds themselves battling on two fronts to keep the plane together in more or less one piece. 

“A gremlin means someone screwed up and you’re blaming Santa Claus”, Captain Reeves tells his men, in words that recall the film’s opening cartoon, “It’s a pass-the-buck excuse, not a literal animal.” Here the gremlin really is a flesh-and-blood creature of sabotaging destruction – but it also remains a metaphor for all the men who have impeded, oppressed and undermined Garrett in her progress through life, forcing her to find her own strength and her own wings as a woman, as a mother, and as a soldier, and to slay the dragon (whose tail she symbolically castrates) herself when everyone else, for all their blustering machismo, proves inadequate to the task. This compelling feminist subtext is reaffirmed at the end by file footage over the closing credits that celebrates the real, albeit often overlooked, WACs and RAF Women’s Auxiliary Forces of WW2, grounding the film’s aerial escapades in actuality – but along the way, be prepared for plucky airborne adventure and increasingly absurd high-tension action as Garrett, in her struggles for both survival and acceptance, must bring all the machinery of pernicious masculinity crashing down. 

The screenplay for Shadow in the Cloud was originally co-authored with Max Landis, but after he was faced with a series of sexual assault allegations, Liang rewrote it several times in a bid to take sole ownership of the work and to have Landis’ name removed (much as Garrett has reclaimed her own maiden name, renouncing the surname of her husband). It is as though the battle of the sexes depicted in the film not only resonates with our own times, but was also replicated in the production itself, ultimately engendering a film that, even if the rules of the Writers Guild of America required that Landis be credited, is still very much Liang’s baby. 

Strap: Roseanne Liang’s plucky airborne adventure cum wartime creature feature Shadow in the Cloud accommodates feminism in its undercarriage.

Anton Bitel