At first, it seems like you can see “The Aeronauts” coming, like a hot air balloon, from a mile away. I was expecting a fictionalized biopic with Eddie Redmayne as an eccentric genius who strives to prove all his doubters wrong, along with Felicity Jones as his long-suffering but loyal spouse who says things like, “Your head is always in the clouds.”
I was half right. Redmayne does play real-life 19th-century scientist James Glaisher, whose hot-air balloon journeys lead to major discoveries in meteorology. But Jones plays the pilot of the balloon, Amelia Wren, a brassy daredevil who plays to the crowds that turn up for their voyages. At one point, she insists on bringing her dog Posey on board the balloon and then throws her overboard. (Don’t worry, Posey has a parachute.)
Wren is a fictionalized character, but an entertaining one, which makes sense in a movie that prizes thrills over authenticity. “The Aeronauts” is a lot of fun when it takes to the skies, with gorgeous (clearly CGI) visuals and plenty of hanging-on-for-dear-life suspense. It’s when the balloon comes down to earth that “The Aeronauts” deflates a little.
Glaisher wants to break the ascent record for ballooning and study weather patterns, with the idea (laughed at by his colleagues) that man could someday learn to predict the weather. He hires Wren, a famous pilot still grieving over the loss of her husband in a previous ballooning accident.
The screenplay by Tom Harper and Jack Thorne surrounds the duo with skeptical supporting characters, like Wren’s sister (Phoebe Fox), who utters the cringe-inducing line, “You can’t fly away from your problems.” Maybe not, but you can fly away from your pedestrian subplots, and when Wren and Glaisher take to the skies, the film achieves liftoff.
The actors (who previously teamed up on the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything”) have terrific chemistry together, one that’s flirty but not necessarily romantic. The two aeronauts develop an appealing bond based on mutual respect and shared enthusiasm, and the screenplay gives them plenty of obstacles and perilous scrapes to overcome.
The CGI may not be realistic, but it sure is pretty, from the vast green landscapes below the balloon to the ominous storm clouds that batter the little balloon to and fro. Amazon Studios is reportedly screening “The Aeronauts” in theaters for only two weeks before it premieres online on Amazon Prime, and it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen.
Harper also directed the superior “Wild Rose” from earlier this year, about a Scottish single mother pursuing her dreams of becoming a country singer. That film had the grit of real life, while “The Aeronauts” feels untethered from reality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of grounding keeps the movie from soaring as high as it could.