There’s a beautifully serene moment of quiet pride midway through The Aeronauts, as spirited pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) and pragmatic weather scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) gradually recognize the weight of a historic milestone. The year is 1862, the place is London, and they are flying in a gas balloon over 30,000 feet up in the air, with nothing but the daunting isolation of infinite clouds for company. Director Tom Harper sticks to a two-shot, as smiles of achievement wash over the faces of Amelia and James. For a moment, all fear and doubt related to their daredevil act of flying a balloon higher than any person has ever attempted is washed away and replaced with a sense of discovery. As a poetic testament to the human desire for conquering the unknown, complete with stunning IMAX shots of the balloon floating upward in the sky like a needle amongst a field of cotton, The Aeronauts soars. Unfortunately, this only lasts as long as the story stays airborne.
Half of Harper’s film unrolls as an awe-inspiring journey with edge-of-your-seat set pieces centering around two brave adventurers risking it all to push their limits and fight the neutral cruelty of nature to survive. Think of it as a 19th century balloon ride version of Gravity. Just like Alfonso Cuaron’s heart-pounding theme park ride of a movie, everything that can go wrong, does goes wrong, leading to desperate and death-defying acts that make for fingernail-biting fun. A playfully extended sequence of Amelia having to climb to the top of the balloon in order to get it to work again, should be a standout for audiences, and provide plenty of nightmare fuel for the acrophobic. Harper adds some sly original touches, like having the runtime of the film mirror the actual length of the balloon ride that inspired Jack Thorne’s script, and having superimposed graphics that give the audience basic details about the balloon’s altitude and trajectory.
It’s too bad this accomplished half is consistently interrupted by one of those paint-by-numbers awards-bait biopics. You know the one: Headstrong scientists defying the established rules of their time in order to triumph against the status quo, leading to what the producers hope will be an inspirational enough climax to generate Oscar buzz. The clichés of the genre line up without a hint of a unique perspective. There’s the obligatory scene of James telling a room full of fuddy-duddy old scientists about his radical idea of using balloons to predict weather patterns, resulting in cries of, “It can’t be done, I tell ya!” There’s the end-of-second-act conflict that appears to derail the project, until of course another boost of confidence and resources snaps everything back together at the last possible minute.
The Aeronauts further shoots itself in the foot by employing a non-linear structure. The story begins with James and Amelia embarking on their ride, surrounded by eager crowds and sly showmanship. Therefore any attempt at suspense around whether our protagonists will be able to go on their journey is nixed, since we know from the beginning that they succeed. The only vital pieces of exposition delivered in these flashback sequences, which stick out all the more since they use a different aspect ratio and color scheme, relate to how James and Amelia got together in their shared passion for flight, as well as Amelia’s tragic backstory that kept her from the skies until James came along. All of this could have been conveyed through a handful of lines between James and Amelia while they are in the balloon. This would have fully immersed the audience in the balloon sequences without constantly undermining it.
While the real-life James was on the actual flight, Amelia is a fictional character, an amalgamation of various female aeronauts from the 19th century. This addition makes sense, since it adds a strong female character as a 21st century conduit to the male-dominated period. More importantly, being birthed by fiction allows writer Jack Thorne to create a character with a sharply defined arc—she has to overcome her past trauma in order to find the courage to get in the balloon and complete the ride. James, hobbled perhaps by historical biography, is a flat character who starts off obsessed with getting the science right and ends on the same spectrum. Perhaps not surprisingly, of the two actors, Jones has the meatier role, and her passionate performance stand out. There’s a terrific 50-minute fan edit somewhere in The Aeronauts, but as far as the theatrical experience goes, half of it is more than worth your time, if you’re willing to tolerate the other half.
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Jack Thorne
Starring: Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Himesh Patel, Tim McInnerny, Tom Courtenay, Phoebe Fox
Release Date: December 6, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.