They go up. That’s the basic premise of The Aeronauts, a biographical adventure film about a weather scientist and a pilot. They go up and, ideally, they come back down safely. Is there a way to make a compelling movie out of something like this? Well, I’ve seen movies about people stuck in coffins, cubes, and phone booths, so I suppose it was worth a try. Fortunately, the adventure aspect is quite compelling and looks great. It’s enough to make up for the familiar backstory elements breaking up the main narrative of the film, let alone the choices in how to accurately represent the history behind all of this.
Eddie Redmayne stars as James Glaisher, a meteorologist with hopes of ascending to great highs via a giant gas balloon to study the atmosphere. The goal would lead to a way to predict the weather. To do this, James will need the help of a pilot, Amelia Wren, portrayed by Felicity Jones (making the film a Theory of Everything reunion). Amelia is a daredevil showman, as far as drumming up excitement for the initial launch, but she’s also a professional who knows what’s best for soaring to such great heights. Together, they’ll risk everything to succeed in their plans.
Watching the balloon-based portion of this film is the highlight. It allows the film to take on an adventure movie feel, with the added race against time element to bring on the drama. The visual effects are terrific in conveying the scale of the balloon and the empty skies around our leads. The thrill of dealing with characters who only have a basket and a big ball of gas to keep them alive keeps the audience in suspense, as we watch the two go higher and higher.
With a film like this, one has to deal with establishing these characters, helping us to understand their purpose in life, or at least make them relatable. There are ways to approach this, with the most obvious being to spend a chunk of the film, early on, devoted to introducing James and Amelia, showing their struggles, and having the audience wait to see if they even get to attempt their balloon trip. As we know, this is a movie about two people who go up in a balloon, the choice to insert portions of backstory throughout the actual balloon trip was a wise choice.
I can’t say these flashbacks are all that interesting, despite good work from Jones, Redmayne, as well as supporting players Tom Courtenay, and Yesterday’s Himesh Patel. However, they are handled well enough to convey the positions occupied in their lives, why the mission is essential, and what it took to get these two up in the sky. Director Tom Harper does try to make the most out of this costume drama portion of the film. He creates some moments of visual symmetry in the ground-based story and hitting at some of the film’s key themes.
That in mind, there is a question about the changes made to what actually occurred. While there really was a James Glaisher, Amelia Wren is a fictional character serving as an amalgamation of Sophie Blanchard, Margaret Graham, and Henry Coxwell (James’ actual flying partner). Why the need to go this direction? Well, while I’m certain commercial aspects of selling this movie were a part of it, it’s not unlike a biopic to mess around with the facts, ideally paying tribute to the overall cause. Whether or not this serves as some form of erasure, what tends to matter most to me is how effective a feature is in telling its story.
I may not know how much more effective the film would be if we followed James and Henry, or the other female characters on the journey’s they took, but The Aeronauts attempts to work as an adventure story concerning cinematic takes on these fictionalized individuals. As it stands, whatever misgivings I have, it comes down to balancing the land with the sky. Fortunately, the stuff in the air is very good.
Dealing with different atmospheric strata allows the film to make a lot of visual choices for an event unfolding over a few hours. It also enables Gravity composer Steven Price to really dive into the different sorts of emotions felt during this journey. The serene nature of being up with the birds is matched with the sense of wonder coming from other discoveries coming out of ascending to new levels. It’s then countered with the dangerous elements that force James and Amelia (mainly Amelia) to think on their feet.
The challenge of going to high means dealing with oxygen levels and temperature. That’s enough to have the two fighting for their lives at various points, yet the work is done to keep the viewer into the moment. It probably helps that Redmayne and Jones work well together. Their established report is playful enough, even as things get more serious. Eventually having Amelia, the pilot, go out on her own to fix certain problems allows the film another layer of suspense, which helps keep a balloon ride from feeling repetitive.
It’s a good thing this aspect is so visually compelling, as a different film structured to make an audience wait an hour before hitting this point would be difficult to take in. As it stands, while there are questionable choices and less than fulfilling moments regarding where these characters came from, The Aeronauts is still quite the marvel when it’s up in the air. That’s enough to make this big balloon adventure one worth floating over to.