Roger Ebert used to have what he called the Balloon Rule. It stated: “Good movies rarely contain a hot air balloon.” For about the first twenty minutes, I was certain that The Aeronauts was going to provide more evidence to validate his theory. The opening is whimsical in a way that always feels artificial to me, like the movie is desperately trying to let us know it's not going to be stuffy in spite of an 1800s period setting and some rather antiquated subject matter. Then it abruptly began to improve. Sure, it's still a little cheesy at times, and undeniably manipulative at others. It's also occasionally thrilling, always well-acted, and unexpectedly kind of fun.
Eddie Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a (real) scientist who believes weather patterns can be predicted. To test his hypothesis, he needs to go higher than any man or woman ever has before. Glaisher convinces (completely fictionalized) hot air balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) to give him and his equipment a ride. She's a bit of a showoff for the crowd gathered to watch them lift off, but that just hides some personal pain regarding the death of her husband.
Together, they reach record heights, facing a powerful thunderstorm, freezing temperatures, and a broken valve along the way. And if you guessed that Glaisher helps Amelia confront her past, you are 100% correct.
The Aeronauts is odd, in that it can never really decide whether it wants to be a serious film about a scientific breakthrough or an action picture. It ends up attempting to be both. That should be a recipe for disaster, yet it becomes part of the movie's quirky appeal.
There are three exciting sequences that make you tense up. One involves the storm, the second finds Amelia having to climb to the top of the balloon mid-flight, and the third centers around the not-so-smooth landing. The second is dizzying and brilliant. The other two are too exaggerated to feel authentic, although it would be a lie to say that they don't work anyway. Director Tom Harper provides the kind of taut pace that pulls you in, whether you want to go or not.
Anchoring The Aeronauts is a strong, emotional performance from Felicity Jones. She does subtle work playing the grieving Amelia, so that we understand why the character is afraid to push things too far up in that balloon, and also why she goes right ahead and pushes them anyway. Jones and Redmayne previously worked together on The Theory of Everything, so they have an easygoing chemistry together.
Visually, the movie is convincing most of the time. A couple sequences have that digital haze that makes it a little too clear the stars are working against a green screen. Mostly, though, The Aeronauts does create the sensation that you're floating in that big balloon right next to the characters. The action scenes, particularly the one where Amelia scales the side of the balloon, are thrilling because of the CGI.
Despite being loosely based on a real person and actual events, The Aeronauts is undeniably slight. The desire simply isn't there to be a fully serious biopic about James Glaisher. The filmmakers have chosen to just use the general idea of his work to fuel a bit of escapist entertainment. It could have been a lot more, but it works sufficiently for what it is.
out of four
The Aeronauts is rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.