‘The Aeronauts’ falls flat in delivering a thrilling ballooning biopic

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

From a distance, “The Aeronauts” appears to have it all: The film promises to be a flashy adventure biopic that reunites “The Theory of Everything” co-stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones and has a prime award season release date. On all fronts, the movie seems as though it would follow in the footsteps of the Oscar-winning “The Theory of Everything” as another historical drama celebrating the achievement of the human spirit and science. But despite appearances, “The Aeronauts” is unfortunately full of hot air.

Written by Jack Thorne (with a story credit given to the film’s director Tom Harper), the film centers around the historical record-setting hot air balloon flight in 1862 that broke new ground for meteorology an important scientific feat that has not been given its proper due in Hollywood. The film states that it is “based on real events,” which is admittedly often taken with a grain of salt, but “The Aeronauts” throws historical accuracy to the wind. 

Because the real-life story is not quite common knowledge, the film’s choice to center the film on the fictional pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and the real meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), tossing Glaisher’s real-life companion Henry Coxwell (who Jones’ character replaces in the film), feels like an unnecessarily deceitful choice that takes the liberties of the “based on real events” a step too far. While it is expected that the screenwriter takes some artistic liberties in terms of historical accuracy to bring a dramatic, entertaining story to the silver screen, it is a strange choice to gender-swap one of the main characters, especially when the film fails to stick the landing even with all of the fudging of the facts.            

Admittedly, Jones is one of the best parts in an overall lackluster film. Her character is flamboyant and fearless, but it feels as though she would have been better served to occupy her own unique story instead of being inserted into Glaisher’s for the sake of the film having a strong female character. 

“The Aeronauts” begins with a sudden momentum, as a large crowd is gathered around to watch Wren and Glaisher lift off. Within a few minutes, they are already up in the air. Virtually no backstory or lead up is given, which makes for an energizing start, but the rest of the film cannot maintain the same energy. The film passes in real time, chronicling the characters’ balloon flight as they travel 37,000 feet in the air. While the runtime is only 100 minutes, watching the two characters in the hot air balloon quickly becomes dull because of the script’s lack of depth. To break up the tediousness of watching them on their journey in real time, the film intersplices flashbacks, attempting to give Wren and Glaisher backstories but failing to make them compelling, as they are reduced to cliches and lack substance. The flashbacks ultimately make it feel like every other stuffy biopic in existence, taking away one of the film’s only redeeming qualities: Its unique, ambitious idea to track the balloon flight as it really happened.     

Because Glaisher is written as a cliched serious scientist, it is obvious that they included Wren’s character to be the stark opposite of him, attempting to create an interesting dynamic. But despite being the one who made these groundbreaking discoveries, Glaisher is very one-dimensional and Redmayne adds nothing interesting in his performance to elevate what is on the page.   

While the script is far from praiseworthy, the visual effects are virtually flawless, making the film feel like a visual spectacle. Some of the sequences in the air are genuinely, edge-of-your-seat frightening. In one extremely engaging scene that provides a necessary jolt of energy in a film that is mostly a chore to watch, Jones has to climb on the outside of the balloon to the top in below-freezing temperatures to start the descent. This is where the film works best, in its adventure movie action sequences. But ultimately, “The Aeronauts”  throws character development and historical accuracy to the side, holding it back from the height of its potential.  

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].