One of my favorite films of all time is Richard Kelly’s The Box, a much-mocked sci-fi thriller that starts as a faithful adaptation of a Twilight Zone plot (Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” to be specific), then spirals out to become its own over-the-top art object once that story runs its course. I was delighted to see that template repeated in Shadow in the Cloud, then, which starts as a copyright-infringing adaptation of the Twilight Zone classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet”, then mutates into its own monstrous beast separate from its obvious source of inspiration. The difference is that The Box expands on its core Twilight Zone story with a flood of increasingly outlandish, convoluted Ideas that explode the initial premise into scattered, irretrievable shrapnel. By contrast, Shadow in the Cloud reduces the initially bizarre outline of “Terror at 20,000 Feet” to the most basic, straightforward hand-to-hand combat action fluff imaginable. It just does so with a full-on Richard Kelly level commitment to the bit, creating something truly spectacular purely out of brute force.
When Shadow in the Cloud is still limited to its “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” beginnings, it does a decent enough job at finding new sources of tension & purpose in that dusty genre template. Chloë Grace Moretz stars as a WWII fighter pilot who’s at the mercy of an overly suspicious, grotesquely macho cargo-run crew who don’t trust her presence on their plane. To neutralize her potential threat to their mission, the men confine her to a gun turret below the plane’s belly, where she’s isolated—and lethally armed—in a free-floating bubble. The combination of that confined space, the radio chatter from the misogynist assholes above (who keep referring to her as a “dame” and a “broad” instead of a fellow soldier), and the eventual emergence of the Twilight Zone version of a gremlin on the plane’s wings is a wonderful tension-builder that makes full, glorious use of its seemingly limited, familiar premise. It’s the lengthy, over-the-top release of that tension in the film’s third act that really achieves something special, though.
After listening to the men on the plane delegitimize and sexualize her for the entire ride—while also ignoring her warnings of the gremlin on the wings and enemy fighters in the clouds—Moretz explodes into action. Once she emerges from her gun-turret prison cell, her deathmatch with the gremlin is nonstop carnage and catharsis, indulging in a Looney Tunes sense of physics & decorum that’s wildly divergent from the film’s confined-space beginnings. The 1940s setting is harshly contrasted with an 80s-synth John Carpenter score as Moretz proves herself to be the toughest solider on-board, effectively tearing the gremlin to shreds with her own bare hands as her fellow soldiers fall to their peril. It’s the same grounded-war-narrative-to-outrageous-horror-schlock trajectory played with in 2018’s Overlord, except in this case the grotesquely monstrous enemy is American misogynists rather than Nazi combatants.
It may not be as gloriously inane as The Box (few films are), but Shadow in the Cloud is a total blast. It’s 80 minutes of delicious, delirious pulp, settling halfway between a dumb-fun creature feature and a sincerely performed radio play. Not for nothing, it’s also the first time I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed a Chloë Grace Moretz performance, as I spent the final half hour of the film cheering her on as if she were a pro wrestler taking down the ultimate heel. I would love to live in a world where every classic Twilight Zone episode were exploited as a jumping-off point for an over-the-top sci-fi thriller that reaches beyond the outer limits of a 20min premise – especially if they all could manage to be this wonderfully absurd.