Monday, May 10, 2021

Movie Review: Shadow in the Cloud

By rights, this should be in one of those mini-review roundups I've been doing. This movie isn't all that new (its US release was on January 1, and it technically premiered last September). And I was going to just toss it into one of those. I even started typing up some thoughts. The thing is... it's just that...

This movie fucking rules, and I couldn't bring myself to relegate it to a few paragraphs.

More than that, this doesn't just rule in a conventional way. This isn't a situation where someone took a typical premise, produced a typical genre movie, and just managed to get everything right. This thing is weird as hell, its existence feels bizarrely anachronistic, and it delivers an experience that's as unique as it is, once again, fucking awesome.

If that's enough for you, please stop reading, open Hulu, and watch this batshit crazy horror/action/adventure hybrid for yourself. Just take it in. Maybe you'll love it like I do; maybe you'll be more bothered by the obvious seams where the movie's budget falls short. Either way, I promise, it's not what you're expecting.

For those of you still here, as always, I'll try and avoid plot points or twists, but I want to stress this thing isn't really powered by those. Its strength comes from visceral emotion and artistic audacity, and it's hard to talk about a movie like that without spoiling a bit of that experience. So, again, I'm inviting you - begging you even - to go watch Shadow in the Cloud without reading another word.

All right then. Since you're still here, let's talk about realism, or more accurately the absence thereof. This movie is untethered to reality in a way few modern movies are. What's almost more intriguing, however, is how it reveals that. Most movies that embrace truly impossible elements (I'm not just talking monsters - I mean physics and reason) do so upfront. They open with an acknowledgement of the absurd to get you onboard. They ask you to suspend your disbelief from the start, so you're not surprised when reality unravels. Think Tarantino movies or Speed Racer: these movies maintain a consistent tone to ensure they're not too jarring.

This does something a bit more subtle. With the exception of a monstrous creature, the first half of the movie is largely realistic. It uses this time to bring us into the point-of-view and psychology of its protagonist, played by ChloĆ« Grace Moretz. It creates a claustrophobic environment for her and puts pressure on her from all sides. You see that pressure affect her. Scare her. Threaten her. You almost expect it to break her, only...

If she was going to break, she'd have broken a long time ago. The movie doesn't say this outright, but it shows us. It sells us on how tough she is, which matters, because we need to buy into that to accept what comes next.

We've seen heroines in horror movies pivot before - that's not new. I'm not sure I've seen it done this effectively. Everything in the movie builds to a moment when we watch Moretz lose her patience rather than her mind, and just as the first half was expressed by showing her being quite literally bottled up, the second half... well... you couldn't convey her mental state in anything resembling reality, anyway.

The movie's big set piece is, in a word, audacious. It would have been audacious in a movie with ten times the budget this had. Attempting it at all was absurd, and by rights it shouldn't work. We're talking trying to do a big-budget sequence without the budget, so they're left trying to sell an already ridiculous sequence with obvious green screens, silly-looking explosions, and not even a big enough fan to sell the wind in her hair.

And they knock it out of the goddamn park.

None of it looks real or believable. But because of the way the movie's structured, it doesn't have to. Because we're in the head of the protagonist, we only need to believe in her motives and determination. We don't need to believe any of this is real; we need to experience the story on its own terms.

They used to make genre movies this way. They used to sell fantastic ideas with actors and stories rather than trying for flawless effects. I'm not saying that philosophy was always better, but it's refreshing to see it used again, and even more refreshing to see it used that well.

It's also refreshing to hear it. This thing also tosses out the assumption movie music should disappear into the background. Shadow in the Cloud features a delightfully retro soundtrack that makes its presence known, and I love it.

I love a lot of things about this movie. I love that the monster is maybe the third most pressing concern as far as the main character is concerned. I love that the ending goes in a direction I don't think I've ever seen before, and it's glorious. I love that the theme is as unsubtle and unapologetic as the physics. ChloĆ« Grace Moretz nails absolutely every scene she's in, which it turns out is literally every scene in the movie, so that's another point in the movie's favor.

This was directed by Roseanne Liang, who I'm guessing you've never heard of before, either. Well... now I've heard of her, and I want more. Someone airdrop her a pallet of money to make a Marvel flick or two dozen indie productions or something. Anything. Whatever she wants.

It's hard to compare this movie to anything, but if pressed I'd point to Attack the Block or Mandy. It's genre that ignores the rules and actually offers some genuine surprises.

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