RogerBW's Blog

Shadow in the Clouds 23 February 2021

2020, dir. Roseanne Liang, Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith: IMDb / allmovie. In 1943, Flight Office Maude Garrett boards a B-17 that's ferrying from Auckland to Samoa, with secret orders and a mysterious package. But she's not the only unexpected passenger on this flight.

Although it tries to look realistic at first with its dark and fogbound airfield, this is an unabashedly pulpy film. When you're climbing around the outside of an aeroplane that's doing 200mph, that doesn't manifest itself as your hair decoratively waving around in the breeze every few seconds. (And constantly vocalising "aah aah aah" noises doesn't really help.) But then our heroine falls out of the plane and onto an exploding enemy aircraft, and is blown straight back into the hole where the turret used to be, landing unharmed, so clearly realism has left the building. OK. I can work with that.

But the real difficulty for me is in the plotting. Yes, all right, the point of the plot is to put a woman on board the plane in this WWII film. But the problem, well, all right, spoilers. (rot13.com may help, if you're reading somewhere that doesn't already support this.)

Onfvpnyyl gurer ner gjb guvatf tbvat ba urer: Znhqr'f frperg zvffvba, jul fur'f ba gur cynar, jung'f va gur obk; naq jung'f gur guvat fur'f frrvat bhgfvqr gur cynar, gung frrzf gb or penjyvat nebhaq naq qnzntvat vg? Gur ceboyrz vf gung gurfr ner gjb pbzcyrgryl qvssrerag cybgf: va gur raq jr'er nfxrq gb oryvrir gung vg'f whfg pbvapvqrapr gung guvf cynar jnf obgu gur bar nggnpxrq ol gur ornfgvr, naq gur bar fur pnhtug n yvsg ba. Naq V qba'g yvxr pbvapvqrapr nf n onfvf sbe n aneengvir. (Gung fur'f nyfb n orggre thaare guna gur genvarq thaaref, jvgu yrff rkcrevrapr – naq gung Wncnarfr svtugref nccrne jryy bhgfvqr gur nernf jurer gurl fubhyq or noyr gb ernpu – naq gung bar bs gur nveperj vf pbvapvqragnyyl eryngrq gb ure ernfba sbe orvat ba gur cynar – jr'er whfg nfxrq gb npprcg, jvgubhg nal rkcynangvba.)

What we get in practice is more than half the film being a one-actor show, as Maude is stuck in the ventral turret listening to a constant barrage of sexist crap from the crew while they ignore what she's saying. (Why yes, Max Landis did write the first draft of the script before he got thrown off the project.) That's a very demanding acting job, and Moretz isn't quite up to making it interesting to watch. Then in the second half she turns into Superwoman, the only person able to fight the beast effectively… and why is that? Because she's an élite operative? Because she's had a briefing on these things? No, it's abguvat zber guna gur cbjre bs zbgureubbq.

I really liked the look of this from the trailer, because unlike many classic aircraft war films that were restricted to a few shooting angles the crew could use modern cameras and CGI to give a sense of place inside the aircraft; there are plenty of shots with people running fore and aft and you have some idea of where things are relative to each other. But then I saw this bit.

Looking at the stuff inside the circle: the top part is the underside of the wing with smoke coming off it, and that is flowing to the right of the frame. So this is the starboard wing (the plane is not flying backwards). But that long narrow blur is a propeller mounted on the right-hand edge of the wing, the edge we can see – i.e. on the trailing edge. And this is meant to be a B-17, which does not have propellers there. The film's trying to give us that sense of place, of being able to say that this is near that and these bits are in between, but it's specifically the viewer who's taking it at its word and trying to assemble an idea of the layout of the thing who will be thrown by shots like that.

And since the crew's attitudes are binary – either "the woman is wrong, whatever she says or does" or "the woman is right, whatever she says or does" – there isn't even a whole lot of genuinely feminist content here, except insofar as Maude is ultimately the instrument of her own salvation. Which I suppose is better than nothing.

In the end there are some enjoyable bits, and in particular the film does a fine job of keeping up the tension, but there's also a constant grating sensation of things being slightly wrong. Oh well. The trailer has most of the good stuff. The end credits show clips of real RAF and USAAF airwomen, and I couldn't help thinking that I'd rather have been watching a film about them.


  1. Posted by John P at 10:36pm on 23 February 2021

    Sounds like that's a couple of hours of your life that isn't coming back. Thanks for saving me. ;-)

    It's hard to tell from the still, but I'm not sure I agree with your analysis of the view. Reason being that the B17 has a low wing, so none of the fuselage windows (which aren't round anyway) would give a view of the underside of the wing. So the only place to see this would be from the main round window of the ball turret - which is where you say she is. But the ball turret is mounted level with the trailing edge of the wing. So it has to be turned forwards to see the underside of the wing at all. So that can't be the trailing edge of the starboard wing but the leading edge of the port wing - with the bulge to the left of the prop being the engine nacelle. Which means the smoke is going in the wrong direction.

    Maybe I'd better stop thinking about this! Cheers John

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:40pm on 23 February 2021

    Yes, it might well be the smoke that's wrong rather than the prop placement – and if they were using a stock CGI model of the thing I suppose that's the thing that would be more likely to be wrong.

    Its a shame because I felt that this could have been great fun with only relatively minor changes. (I'm usually more vicious when I'm disappointed than when I expect rubbish and get it.)

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:30am on 24 February 2021

    Aukland to Samao at about 1800 miles strikes me as a long way for a B-17, they're not a stunningly long range aircraft. Wikipedia lists the B-17 range as 2000 miles, that strikes me as tight for margin. Or am I asking the sort pf questions it's best not to ask with this sort of film?

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:43am on 24 February 2021

    Having watched the trailer, you do NOT put passengers in the ball turret! It's an utterly stupid place to put someone you believe to be a passenger, and a very dangerous place to be on the aircraft. I'm thinking about this too hard aren't I?

  5. Posted by Gus at 04:55am on 24 February 2021

    you do NOT put passengers in the ball turret

    Best place for 'em. I'm thinking about this too wrongly, though.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:59am on 24 February 2021

    Owen: indeed, gcmap to the rescue. (Not a lot of islands to put down on in between, either.) One complication: that 2,000 mile range is with a 3 ton bomb load, and while I don't remember what the cargo is that they're nominally carrying it clearly can't be terribly substantial.

    But yeah, all the decisions after "the film is set almost entirely aboard the aircraft" seem to have been made on the basis of a storytelling ethos which doesn't really work for me. (Maude has to be isolated in the turret so that she can be the only person in a position to see the Beastie at first.)

    Apart from that it really wouldn't be hard to convert this into a WWII/Horror game run in my usual style (which I'd characterise as "the real-world details are got right").

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