Ups and downs: The Aeronauts review

On 5th September 1862, the pioneering English meteorologist James Glaisher and his pilot rose to more than 30,000 feet in a hot air balloon — roughly the altitude achieved by a modern airliner, and a world record at the time.

In reality Glaisher was in his 50s and long-married, and his pilot was an only slightly younger chap; for The Aeronauts, however, director Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne have reworked Glaisher as a fresh-faced, hurt-puppy-eyed Eddie Redmayne and given him a wholly fictional female pilot (albeit a composite of some real lady balloonists), played by Felicity Jones.

This allows them to mix some genuinely exciting ballooning sequences with a generous helping of tedious cliché about the visionary young scientist’s struggle against the sceptical hidebound establishment, as well as a love story which is not so much unconvincing as uninteresting, because we never get the sense that these are real characters and therefore cannot quite care whether they fall in or out of love, or indeed their balloon. The Theory of Everything, 2014’s much-lauded Redmayne-Jones vehicle, this film isn’t.

The pair are credible enough as outlines, but far from rounded or full; their personal traits and their back stories seem to be stuck at the stage of a writer’s checklist. Similarly, although the film’s recreation of the physical is convincing — Redmayne and Jones are both impressively bedraggled and weatherbeaten by the end, and throughout the Victoriana is generally well done — it falls far short of the mark on language. Nobody here sounds remotely like they belong in 1862, in terms of vocabulary or speech patterns.

This is a pity, because The Aeronauts does successfully carry off quite a lot of what it sets out to do. The scenes in the balloon itself are mostly engaging and occasionally even thrilling, especially a final crisis where we truly aren’t sure how our heroes will escape. The script does a good job of explaining essentials like the relationship of weight, gas and altitude — necessary given that a modern audience can hardly be expected to understand much about hot air ballooning — and it does this without ever resorting to info-dumps.

There are some mouth-opening, if not quite jaw-dropping, visuals as well: for example the aerial views of Victorian London (Glaisher actually took off from Wolverhampton, but no matter), another scene where Jones has to climb up the outside of the craft while thousands of feet above the ground (reminiscent of Brad Pitt at the opening of Ad Astra), and some glorious shots of the iced-up balloon as it finally descends from the dangerous heights. The Aeronauts benefits from IMAX, too, and is unlikely to fare so well on the small screen, though Amazon Studios is taking it to streaming in only two months.

The balloon expedition itself is told more or less in real time and, tightly concentrated on two people in a small space, has very much the atmosphere of a boat-at-sea movie. It’s unfortunate, then, that its impact is so diminished by the flashbacks narrating the lead-up to the ascent. These don’t add much to our understanding of the characters or the situation, and the one supposedly big drama — the possibility that Jones might pull out of the project at the last minute — is pointless: we already know she didn’t, because we’ve seen them take off.

The way in which Harper ( Wild Rose) and Thorne (better-known for TV work) handle this typifies, too, the easy resort to cliché which mars so much of The Aeronauts, especially on the ground. Jones has been having second thoughts; Redmayne’s pal Himesh Patel (appearing a bit too soon after Yesterday to be quite convincing in top hat, tails and Victorian whiskers) tries to convince her to reconsider; Glaisher is a brilliant meteorologist, he says, outstandingly accurate in his predictions…even if he was wrong when he forecast snow tonight.

You know, of course, exactly what will happen as soon as Jones steps out the door in the next scene. She visits the grave of her husband, also a balloonist, and — yes! — the promised snow begins to fall. Cue swelling music from Steven Price (noted for Gravitybut contributing an unremarkable, stating-the-obvious score here) and a change of mind for Jones.

After the expedition is over, the concluding earthbound scenes are equally trite. We’ve already seen young Redmayne struggling to persuade a crowd of eminent but unconvinced older scientists that weather prediction has a future, helplessly continuing to plead his case as they walk out of the room. This scene, familiar almost shot-for-shot from so many other movies, is now balanced by a similarly derivative one where the same group of scientists gather to applaud him (except, of course, one stone-faced rival).

The real trouble with The Aeronauts, though,is not that these scenes (or other tired ideas like the devotedly analytical scientist learning to appreciate beauty through his encounter with a freer spirit) have been done before. In a different movie, we might have been made to care whether the scientific world accepted Glaisher’s ideas, or about the Jones character’s conflicts with her family.

But here, these themes are treated in such a cursory and superficial way that they contribute nothing of value: it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that what the film-makers really wanted to give us was the story of two people isolated in the vast skies, and the rest is just filler, delivered without much conviction but necessary to extend the running time beyond the hour-long voyage.

Among the cast, Redmayne and Jones (who was striking in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) do their best, Jones being the more dominant in every scene; but the script doesn’t give them enough to work with, and they remain flat if likeable characters. The stand-out — and by far the best thing in the terrestrial scenes — is Tom Courtenay in a cameo as Glaisher’s father, drifting into dementia but also making the parallel between ballooning in the 1860s and space exploration in the 20th century explicit with his comments on stargazing.

It’s a hint that there might have been an interesting screenplay for The Aeronauts at some point, that it could have been a film which slipped the surly bonds of earth. But it’s ended up decidedly leaden, the absorbing balloon narrative constantly dragged down by the insipid scenes on terra firma.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.

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