Women of Action: MONSTER HUNTER and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

The recent movie Shadow in the Cloud sounds like it could be one of those occasional January miracles: an efficient, unpretentious genre mish-mash executed with no-fuss brawn and style. It’s about Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz), a WWII flight officer who hitches a last-minute ride on a bomber, where she is beset by sexism, then Japanese fighter planes, then gremlins. Shadow is so theoretically January-tastic that it dropped on the very first of the year, a rare release date made more feasible by the global pandemic, which has sent the film to first-run VOD as well as a few theaters simultaneously.

The hybrid release model is unusually appropriate for this movie; for its entire 83 minutes (or rather, for the 75 minutes it actually runs minus credits), it straddles the line between unusually ambitious, well-made trash and the chintzy direct-to-video garbage of old. The movie even provides its own convenient delineation: there’s the sizable chunk of the story confined to Maude’s cramped stay in the plane’s ball turret, communicating with her mostly-offscreen co-stars via radio, versus the mayhem-heavier sequences where she exits the ball turret to fight off those human-sized beasties. The filmmakers seem torn over whether its low-budget ridiculousness should be elegantly elided, or powered through with smash-and-grab energy.

Ultimately, though, it’s not a low budget or lack of respectability that sinks this movie about giant gremlins attacking a B-17 bomber. It’s Maude Garrett herself, both in the writing and playing of the character. Maude has obviously been conceived as a feminist hero, plucky and easy to root for. She enters into a male-dominated environment, is harassed and largely ignored even when she recognizes the danger the plane is in. In the face of these mostly useless guys and the aforementioned enemy combatants of many shapes and sizes, she presses forward in her secret mission with fierce determination.

Part of the problem is the nature of that mission–a mid-movie twist that will now be disclosed. (Turn back now to remain unspoiled.) It is eventually revealed that the important package that Maude brings onto the plane contains not important wartime documents or devices but a newborn baby–Maude’s, in fact, conceived with one of the soldiers on board, who is married to someone else. Despite this complication, the baby himself is a movie creature of utter convenience, there to ratchet up suspense over his well-being, so that the movie can offer repeated reassurances that no harm has come to him via close-ups of his sweet, clean, barely-fussed face. It also gives Maude a turbo-boost of Strong Female Character cliches. She gets to be the tough, underestimated woman who experiences textbook examples of sexism, and then the mom who literally screams “you don’t know how far I’ll go!” when a gremlin threatens her little boy. She’s ultra-capable and tough as nails, then jumps into the half-assed ritual of showing that a woman’s true strength is kicked into higher gear by having a child.

This may be a good time to point out that the original screenplay for Shadow in the Cloud comes from Max Landis, a mostly-unsuccessful filmmaker who has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct as well as (less urgently, of course) masking his contempt for women with a kind of edgelord screenwriter enthusiasm. Since the Shadow script was sold and more allegations about its author have emerged, the production has distanced itself from Landis, stressing in the press that director Roseanne Liang rewrote his work heavily. It’s hard to tell whether Liang–whose direction is generally assured–was working with thin material, or maybe too much of a bad thing. But whether through a rewriting process or by Landis’s own hand, the movie’s thoughts on womanhood seem muddled and contradictory at best.

Still, these contradictions still could have been reconciled by a powerful central performance. Unfortunately, while Moretz makes the correct decision to take the silly material seriously, she spends a lot of time inadvertently proving how deceptively important acting can be to ridiculous January B-movies. This is especially obvious in contrast with the recent Monster Hunter–technically a December release, but spiritually January, not least because the pandemic has turned all theatrical releases into January affairs. In Monster Hunter, Milla Jovovich once again plays an action hero fighting off a vicious, otherworldly enemy, here CG beasts instead of the zombie hordes that bedeviled her throughout the Resident Evil series. Her husband and Resident director Paul W.S. Anderson also made this movie, and on paper, her barely-named Artemis is even more of a Strong Female Character stereotype than Maude. Early on, she calls a group of mostly-male soldiers “ladies,” and in case we don’t understand what this hackneyed trope is meant to signify, one of them helpfully points out that even though she’s also a lady, she still makes it sound like an insult. A lady who doesn’t act like a lady–what?!?!

Jovovich shows her true strength when Artemis is forced to make her way through the unforgiving desert of an alternate dimension, dodging giant spiders and taking on dragons. She holds the screen near-silently, and often on her own, like the cover of a pulp paperback springing to life. Beyond the physical demands of her action roles, always well-met, she’s developed into a charismatic performer, too, able to hint at elements of her character’s backstory and her character’s reticence to explain her backstory with just a general demeanor and a few looks.

She’s even better opposite Tony Jaa as a more experienced monster hunter. The characters don’t share a common language, and as their testiness gives way to communication, they develop a charming rapport driven by acting, rather than dialogue. There’s not much characterization in an early scene where Jaa spitefully kicks over a desperate thirsty Jovovich’s water source, or a slightly later one where she introduces him to chocolate. But they have an immediacy that Shadow in the Cloud’s programmatic hybridization desperately lacks, even when it flirts with single-set concentration. Jovovich and Jaa share a rapport that feels utterly unforced, unfussed, and genuine.

Moretz, meanwhile, emotes her way through Shadow in the Cloud with an overemphasis that feels phony almost immediately, as if sensing that she has to work overtime to sell the movie’s mashed-up twists. Most of her best past performances have been comic and stylized–and involving some kind of unsettling precociousness. In Shadow, everything from her no-nonsense attitude to her pair of accents to her maternal resolve flattens into the self-consciousness of a child actor trying to convey something, rather than laconically allowing it to come through. Come to think of it, Moretz has yet to give a convincing performance as an adult. Here, she’s miming a series of concepts, and her big action-movie moments feel, accordingly, perfunctory–written, not fully physicalized into onscreen action.

It’s difficult not to imagine how Shadow might have played with a different performer in the lead, though it’s an admittedly tricky proposition, locating the next Milla Jovovich. Maybe it’s the suggestion of Moretz’s initial accent, but it feels like the part for a new Kate Beckinsale, who slums with so much style in the Underworld series, or Gemma Arterton, whose tony-period-piece-to-trash ratio has long since tipped in the wrong direction. (What a fine companion piece this movie could make to the likes of Their Finest and Summerland!) It’s a cliche, by now, to huffily point out that some supposedly underappreciated entertainer could easily play any number of boilerplate “serious” roles, while some fancy, respected actor couldn’t hack it in some cutesy trifle. It’s all conjecture, designed to boost whatever actor the writer (by which I mean, Person on Twitter) already prefers. But here’s a living, breathing example, or at least half of one: Chloe Grace Moretz can’t do what Milla Jovovich does. Not many can, actually.