August, 1943. A female Royal Air Force officer boards a B-17 bomber manned by short-tempered misogynists. With no room on the plane, she’s forced to stay below in the claustrophobic turret seat of glass and rusty metal. She can barely make out the ground thousands of feet below.
Meanwhile, something small and evil sneaks through the plane’s crevices.
This is Shadow in the Cloud. Following a muted theatrical and Video on Demand release on January 1, one of the best action-horror movies of 2021 is now streaming on Hulu.
Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Roseanne Liang, Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the lead role of Maude Garrett, a British officer during World War II tasked with transporting precious cargo through hostile — and haunted — air space.
“She’s not the best person,” Liang tells Inverse about her protagonist. “She’s selfish, she makes stupid decisions. But you’re rooting for her because what she wants is so pure. Once you understand the savagery of parenthood or any deep conviction, you understand why she’s doing what she’s doing.”
Warning: Minor spoilers for Shadow in the Cloud ahead.
A pulse-pounding thrill ride, Shadow in the Cloud mashes a dozen divergent elements (composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper lays down ‘80s synthwave over images of soaring WWII fighter planes) and it mashes them well. At once, Liang’s picture is a period war movie; a female empowerment fantasy; a creature feature; a claustrophobic thriller; and as the plot unfolds, a romance. And all the while, it undeniably commands a singular identity.
Shadow in the Cloud was no easy task, but Liang was up for the challenge. “I didn’t know it was going to work,” Liang tells Inverse, “But it ignited passion not just in me, but my team.” Liang cites a love for genre hybrids, like 1977’s Star Wars and the cult television shows Firefly and Buffy, as tonal influences. “I’ve been a lover of hybrids. I think it’s the only way to go in a post-modern world. I don’t know what age we’re in, but I think hybrids give me the most joy.”
While its script was first drafted by disgraced screenwriter Max Landis, Liang made substantial edits that warranted Liang receiving co-credit. As a rare look at female pilots in World War II, even Liang had to educate herself on this overlooked history of women at war in the 20th century.
“Towards the end of the war, the Allies were running out of male pilots,” Liang says. “They had to train females to deliver planes. They didn’t have crews. They flew solo often. I had not heard of it when I started this film, and it was amazing when I found out.”
Crawling with monstrous gremlins (whose folklore begins not in ‘80s movies, but in the RAF), Shadow in the Cloud isn’t a historical snapshot. “I’m hoping someone will make a true history movie [on female pilots],” says Liang. “Shadow in the Cloud is not that movie. It couldn’t be, because that would do a disservice to history itself. But hopefully, it ignites discussion about erasure, and who tells history from what point of view.”
In addition to creative challenges, Liang navigated technical ones including her lead’s claustrophobia. A long stretch of the film takes place in the confined space of a gunner’s seat; it’s a credit to Liang’s directing the minimalist plotting never hinders its maximalist staging.
“I wanted to lean into it,” Liang says of Moretz’s fear of small spaces. In reality, Moretz was filmed “in a container out on the parking lot.” But the anxiety was real.
“Chloë herself was overcoming a real phobia while she was in that turret. We could never have all the side doors [locked] for the majority of the shoot. We needed to get our camera in, anyway. But for shots we close in, she needed to get into a psychological space. You see her shaking. All the micro-expressions in her face are probably what she’s feeling in that moment.”
There were other nightmares, too. “There was a huge VFX element that was surprisingly medical,” Liang says. Between the rotational axes of the turret, the changing weather and time of day, and later on, full-blown action scenes set high in the sky, there was a lot of physics to figure out. “We have to populate what we see out the window, we did gravity sims.”
But Liang allowed the story to break the laws of physics. “Story is king. Story is the most important thing that drives all decisions. When people watch [the movie] and go, ‘That’s ridiculous, the physics is broken.’ I’m a hater of physics breaking as the next person. But James Cameron defines when story is king, and I believe we can apply that too.”
The truth of Maude’s “cargo” speaks to the most compelling themes for Liang, herself the mother of two children. “The savagery of parenthood is fascinating to me,” she says. “That’s what attracted me to Maude and Chloë. We had discussions about this, she’s sort of a superhero.” But that doesn’t mean she’s perfect. “I love Wonder Woman, she’s aspirational, but the everyday superhero is much messier than that. I’m interested in the messiness.”
Shadow in the Cloud is streaming now on Hulu.