After enjoying a film-festival and theatrical run, Amazon original movie The Aeronauts makes its streaming debut. A quasi-factual story dressed up as a prestige picture, the film tells the story of a record-setting 19th-century gas-balloon flight taken by meteorologist James Glaisher, who actually existed and is played by Eddie Redmayne, and Amelia Wren, who did not actually exist, and is played by Felicity Jones. In reality, Glaisher made many balloon ascents with scientist Henry Tracy Coxwell, who is played by nobody, because he’s not in the movie, which comes with the typically dubious opening subtitle, “Inspired by true events.” Frankly, this is all hot air (phrasing), and none of it matters as long as the movie’s entertaining, right?
THE AERONAUTS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: London, 1862. James Glaisher (Redmayne) readies for the flight, stocking the balloon basket with notebooks, instruments, carrier pigeons (to send down data in case he doesn’t survive!) and a heavy wooden chest that’ll act as a desk at 30,000 feet or so. A large crowd of paid attendees gathers to watch the launch. He eyeballs a cloud: Looks a little thunderstormy. But, at the behest of the a-hole investor who stuck a bunch of money into the event, he assures the launch will still happen.
The balloon’s pilot arrives on a wind of exclamation points: Amelia Wren (Jones) show-ponies up to the basket, doing cartwheels and trotting out her her little prop dog. Whoopee! Gotta make it a show for everyone, right? All the hoopla tends to undermine the impending danger of their journey, where the glory of smashing a French ascent record of 23,000 feet dovetails with Glaisher’s desire to gather data that’ll help him be a pioneer in the science of weather prediction. He’s laughed at by his harrumphing and heavily-eyebrowed peers, though. PREDICT THE WEATHER? WHAT A RUBE!
Wren has her own weighty baggage to drop over the side from above the clouds. She has nightmares of a tragic flight; we see a figure tumble from the basket and fall down down down, as she watches, helpless. Is it foreshadowing, flashback or just fantasy? I spoil it not!
Of course, the flight is eventful, and they discover great beauty, great horror and great whimsy way, way, way up high. On-screen stat lines track their ascent. There’s a storm, some dangling from ropes at terrifying heights, the discovery of what happens when the oxygen gets thin and the temperature drops. There’s a flock of butterflies, a brilliant sun, breathtaking views of cloud landscapes. There are also flashbacks, to Glaisher’s ailing father, to the things that made Wren fearless and fearful at the same time. The higher they go, the greater the danger. With every vertical foot, they go where no human has gone before. Will they survive this treacherous expedition? And if so, how?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: We acrophobes who tortured ourselves by watching Man on Wire (or its fictional counterpart, The Walk) will feel a queasiness in our guts when the camera gives us a sense of scale necessary to illustrate the danger of the expedition. Or to convey the fearless idiocy of the characters, who like to lean out of the balloon basket like it’s only 20,000 microns above the ground while our sphincters clench.
Performance Worth Watching: Full disclosure: I am not, never have been and never will be a Redmayniac. I struggle mightily to get past the affectations of his performances. However, Jones consistently exhibits earnest charisma in her roles, and this is no different. She digs in, does her best to keep us emotionally invested in the story, and succeeds.
Memorable Dialogue: “We are now higher than any man or any woman has ever been!” Glaisher exclaims. Except maybe Cheech and/or Chong!
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: It’s no great revelation to say The Aeronauts is a literal high-flying adventure that turns into a survival story. Similar-ish things happened to the real-life Glaisher and Coxwell, although those things surely have been dramatically inflated (phrasing) for this fanciful-fiction version of their flight. The film’s centerpiece is a real teethgrinder of a third-act sequence in which Wren bare-hands her way up frozen ropes to the top of the ice-caked balloon, and even though it’s obviously CGI trickery and as dangerous for Jones as a tiptoe through the tulips (I don’t think the stunts have any Tom Cruise Truth to them), my acrophobia flared like like a cinder blasted with a fresh squirt of lighter fluid.
That’s a long way of saying the special effects are, well, effective, and director Tom Harper constructs a few predictable, but still suspenseful sequences of peril. If only the characters were more dynamic. They’re rendered rote and broad and wide, although Jones and Redmayne — I’m being charitable; it’s mostly Jones — give them a diligent goosing in an attempt to elevate (phrasing) the screenplay’s boilerplate arcs. The stars share some mid-air chemistry, but not on par with their pairing in The Theory of Everything, which was written with more nuance.
Some take issue with Harper’s liberal mixing of fact and fiction, replacing Coxwell with a female character (advice: just ditch the “true story” bull roar, and you’ll avoid the discussion entirely). It’s always good to see women cast in traditionally male roles, but The Aeronauts is ultimately faux-feminist; as written, Wren is more a bundle of she’s-got-moxie cliches than a complex, completely rendered character. It won’t make us think any less of Jones’ efforts, though.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Aeronauts clearly wants to be more than just a light survivalist adventure, but it’s no more functional than that description. It’s corny, predictable and flawed, but not deeply so. Accept it for its flaws, and you’ll be entertained.