Think of the one film this past decade that pulled you in simply because it looked incredible; never mind the storyline. John Carter, Inception, Alita: Battle Angel, Ex Machina, The Jungle Book. Five examples, two of which will likely stand among the best this decade, for both a visionary style and a grounded storyline worth paying attention to. The base formula behind just about any single eye-catching moment serves as a crude framework for Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts, stretched out to a feature and leaving barely anything else around it. It’s all gimmick that dares to rewrite history, and not in the best way. Perhaps the worst imaginable, the more I think about it.
Slathering us with the figurative butter of a classical Victorian setting (it’s London 1862), Harper, along with co-writer Jack Thorne, wastes no time getting our supposed heroes off the ground. And no surprise, they are as mismatched a pair as they come. At the same time, one can’t help but feel somewhat excited to see them together again. A scientist and a showgirl are united to stage a scientific expedition in a hot air balloon, to take it higher than any one man (or woman) had ever reached. And perhaps to discover some new truths about the weather; it was just that time in our history.
Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher, the straight man of the two, the scientist working on pure grit and the promise of glory. Rejected by his peers, and nervy at the condition of his dementia-stricken father (Tom Courtenay), he attempts a somewhat solo expedition, at the behest of his doting assistant (Yesterday’s Himesh Patel). The only other thing to either stop or support him would be that of a minor fabrication from the actual true-life story Harper draws from. Felicity Jones, Redmayne’s Theory of Everything co-star, boards the vessel rather rudely, though not without her own level of expertise. She plays Amelia Wren, a daredevil pilot looking for another shot after the passing of her deceased husband (Vincent Perez). A shy, lonely society girl seeking new thrills. Nothing wrong with that. That is until the person she’s paired with becomes drunk on a slightly unachievable goal.
Get them in the air, that’s perhaps the only objective Harper and Thorne are focused on. Any manner of motivation, any raising of stakes for the pair, what they’re leaving behind on the ground, it’s all an afterthought. Expressed in scattered flashbacks, they’re far from sensical. And they add so little if anything to an already thin plot. What we learn about either Charles or Amelia away from the balloon, only the bare minimum factors to their anxious, enthralling venture mid-flight. And what we discover about them while floating, bears so little consequence to themselves on the ground. It’s a painful disconnect to slog through, loaded with awkward ribs on workplace gender roles and self-identity. Neither proves their genuineness, both like unwelcome holiday guests chatting endlessly.
At least what the film gets right helps maintain its own buoyancy. Harper, fresh off a win with the electrifying country musical Wild Rose, once more flexes his fantasy muscles with ease, alongside Thorne, whose recent work in the genre has proven quite steady (re: His Dark Materials on HBO). But considering they’re also spinning historical fact into quirky fiction filler, perhaps any praise of this being a newfound source of a “tale from a distant land” could be premature.
The two carry the mild adventure aesthetic comfortably aloft, at least granting the audience plenty to gawk over for the eyes. Every single wide shot where the balloon hovers over the English countryside? I’d want those for my desktop. Owe that to cinematographer George Steel (Harper’s War & Peace miniseries), and the production design duo of David Hindle and Christian Huband, making old fashioned out of the supposedly modern without much difficulty. Steven Price’s underscore also adds a few notes of aural vigor, never settling for just being old-timey, going a bit abstract at points to intensify the upper-level plight.
And such is where we find Jones and Redmayne trapped, arguing against each other’s egos, and not quite forming a romance like many would expect. They keep it understandably professional, but their chemistry is no less potent. Just like their last pairing five years ago, they are a delight to watch, particularly in their shared element. And it gets brutally uncomfortable at 30,000 feet without proper clothing. One of many slipups caused by a certain lack of oversight. Even as hypoxia begins to set in for the pair, they’re still the best thing to happen to each other, and they prove that at every point of the ascent. Especially when it becomes acrobatic; Jones further proves her abilities in that department when it comes to the eventual descent. Slow as it rolls, it did take place in just one spring afternoon. Yet the level of pacing makes it appear like at least a week’s triad.
Much of the details should’ve been fleshed out better, that anecdotal backstory wrapped around James and Amelia’s flight deserving of greater impetus. But sadly, what matters most to the two, and to Harper, is the sky. I desperately wanted to enjoy The Aeronauts; a few moments did go by where I felt like I was enjoying the ride. Only to be sent back down to the ground for an unwarranted lecture that posed its own distraction from what does work about this disjointed suspense drama. It’s otherwise a decent enough film if one isn’t so caught up on accuracy. Do take the time afterward to read Richard Holmes’ book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air; the actual inspiration for Harper and Flynn’s script. If the film doesn’t offer any educational gristle, and I’m sure it’ll get some play in many a high school science class moving forward, its nonfiction counterpart surely will. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Aeronauts opens at Seattle’s Varsity, and Redmond’s iPic today, before debuting on Prime Video December 20; rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements; 100 minutes.