There’s an incredible true story in The Aeronauts about the real scientists that traveled in a hot air balloon to previously unattainable heights- it’s an epic tale of perseverance, survival, and scientific ingenuity, captured on an epic scale with vertigo inducing sequences that were simply made for IMAX screens. When the film is telling that story, it’s invigorating and exciting, but anytime the film wanders from the story at its center to focus more on the characters’ backstories, it starts to grow dull. These are not poorly drawn characters, but why they’re doing what they’re doing isn’t nearly as interesting as watching them do it.
In 1862 London, the pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) and the meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) promise an ecstatic crowd that they will travel on a death defying mission in which they will travel higher in a hot air balloon then anyone ever before. Glashier sees this as an opportunity to conduct his research that others have doubted, and the showman-like Rennes quickly takes the opportunity to dazzle the crowd and promise a great adventure. However, both characters face personal struggles as well; Rennes is coping from the loss of her husband, who was killed in a hot air balloon accident, and Glashier sees this as a chance to prove himself to all those that had mocked his seemingly absurd theories.
It’s a perfect setup; both characters are likable outsiders who embark on this mission to prove their worth, and while their relationship is initially based on the unique abilities that the other possesses, their friendship grows as they share with one another (and thankfully the film does not attempt to force a romance between the two). Jones has the more exciting character and gives a more emotional performance, as her character is forced to retread her own history as they ascend, but Redmayne is also good at showing a quiet belief within the process that makes him suited for a mission like this, yet less ideal for normal human interaction.
The characters are solid and seeing them solve problems together is entertaining, but the film feels the need to build much of their history through flashbacks. After the bold decision to begin the film with the ascension itself, these fairly mundane flashbacks deescalate the tension of the story; exposition through dialogue alone can grow tiring, but considering the circumstances that these characters are in, I think they have a reason to share with one another. There are certainly key moments in which the flashbacks are necessary, particularly involving Glashier’s relationship with his parents and Rennes’s relationship with her sister, but they need to be kept to a minimal level in order to keep the story moving.
What the film does do expertly is find a balance between danger and wonder; both characters are inherently curious and seem to love what they do, and seeing them experience things that no human has ever seen before gives the film a sense of joy. As they get get higher and the stakes get more dangerous, the characters are able to express in meticulous detail what their problem solving process is like. The film isn’t afraid to get technical, and it’s worth it to understand exactly what the characters’ goals are when they face seemingly insurmountable odds.
The final act is easily the film’s strongest, and as the balloon grows tattered and the rudimentary technology begins to fail, it’s exhilarating to watch. Reaching this height alone is a situation that is both terrifying and exciting, but throw in malfunctioning technology and it becomes even more enthralling. The film never loses its sense of height; I love the visuals of the balloon freezing as it passes above the clouds, and the plummeting final moments could even be compared to films like Gravity. We get a sense of what the ground perspective through the companions left at the fair (including Yesterday breakout star Himesh Patel as Glashier’s assistant John Trew), and unlike the flashbacks, these moments enhance the story by showing another perspective.
It’s a shame that Amazon Studios seemed to botch the theatrical release and rollout for The Aeronauts, because it’s certainly a film that I think deserves to be seen on a big screen to take in the magnitude of its visuals. When played on a small screen it can still be appreciated, but its easier to note its flaws, namely the weird structure of its exposition, the generic dialogue, and the characters that are charismatic, but rather thinly written. It’s a well intentioned adventure with some real high points, and the weaker elements aren’t enough to stop The Aeronauts from taking flight. Grade: B-