The script, by Jack Thorne, is ostensibly rooted in truth, retracing a historic flight that broke altitude records in the 1860s by lifting passengers almost 40,000 feet in little more than a wicker basket. Amelia Wren is a composite character inspired by several real-life female aeronauts, whose barrier-breaking arc is designed to add some heft to the narrative beyond people shivering as they fly very high into the air. But the film’s rendering of the prejudice she faces is comically simplistic, a parade of cartoonish fops insisting women don’t belong anywhere near a balloon. She’ll sure show them!
Wren’s partner in her airborne expedition is James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a meteorologist who was actually present for the record-breaking flight. In The Aeronauts, he’s well meaning but a little lacking in grit, more interested in measuring humidity than in fooling around with rigging. If Wren is trying to prove she belongs in the pilot’s seat, Glaisher is endeavoring to demonstrate the potential of weather prediction, a concept his fellow scientists see as no more plausible than sorcery. Because the modern viewing audience is firmly aware that Glaisher’s theories will be proved out, it’s down to the film to make his quest for discovery seem dramatic.
Sadly, it can’t; Glaisher’s onscreen scientific experiments involve little more than rattling various contraptions into the air and checking his thermometers. The credenza-sized chest of doohickeys that he brings on board exists mostly to frustrate Wren, who is trying to get their balloon up and down as safely as possible. Much of the film, which plays out the flight in real time with a graphic charting its progress, sees Wren and Glaisher bickering in their basket as they rise higher, the air gets thinner, and icicles start to form on their eyebrows.
Jones and Redmayne, who both emerged as stars when they played a couple in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything, are strangely lacking in chemistry this time around. Here, they’re better at yelling at each other than at throwing off flirty sparks, partly because their characters are burdened with information-dumping flashbacks that detail how the world has been against them up until now. Glaisher’s character in particular seems useless aboard the balloon, getting in the way of Wren’s piloting and dismissing Wren’s safety concerns in the name of discovery. It’s only when the tension turns life-or-death that things get truly interesting.
That’s because despite the threadbare script and snippy performances, Harper’s film is quite a visual feat, shot with large-format cameras and intended for presentation on IMAX screens. As someone deathly afraid of flying, I had my heart in my mouth for certain sequences, including an especially gripping one of Wren climbing up the side of the balloon to repair some broken equipment. The tenuousness of Wren and Glaisher’s position, dangling in the stratosphere with just a woven wicker basket keeping them from death, is inherently thrilling stuff.
Unfortunately, Amazon, which produced and distributed the film, is only letting The Aeronauts play in theaters for two weeks in limited release before shunting it online, where its sweeping cinematography will have far less punch. On the small screen, The Aeronauts will deflate, its impressive special effects punctured by the flimsiness of its scripting. Yes, women belong in balloons. They also belong in good movies, and it’s a shame this isn’t one.