Tom Harper’s ascent to the stratosphere has moments of tension, but they’re undercut by a choppy narrative and a shallow approach to its true story.
It doesn’t take long for The Aeronauts to lift off, with its core team of two people, one dog, and one weather balloon. Well, make that two people and a weather balloon. Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), ever the showstopper, has just safely cast her lil’ pup, Percy, hundreds of feet down to a crowd of spectators as they gasp at the parachute tethered to his back. Back up in the clouds, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) sits across from Amelia, scowling politely.
Needless to say, he isn’t having any of it. It’s 1862 and the scientific community sees meteorology as a hoax. Wren wants to break the record for the highest ascent into the atmosphere, but Glaisher has another plan: to lug some trinkets into the air and get some fancy data that prove people can indeed predict the weather. It’s the sort of push-pull dynamic that one could imagine being lovingly brought to the stage, and in gentler hands, it could have worked on the big screen. That isn’t to call The Aeronauts a failure; it just feels curiously small.
Director Tom Harper, whose latest hits theaters just six months after Wild Rose, has a clear affinity for his characters. He refuses to ascribe any romantic tension between the two, and the story he’s crafted with Jack Thorne isn’t content to define them by character traits. However, Thorne’s script packs in flashbacks to fill in the gaps, forcing the picture to strafe between human drama and minimalist adventure. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s sclerotic.
One could assume that Harper and Thorne had an obligation to flesh out this true story, but it doesn’t seem too concerned with that. (Jones’s character is a fictional replacement of Glaisher’s real partner, Henry Coxwell.) It’s more involved in the spirit of adventure itself if anything, but it’s whenever a character experiences something specific that the film triggers a flashback to their academic pursuits and first meetings. The issue is that these encounters don’t do much for thematically or narratively. They’re filler, showing what could have been said.
In that regard, it’s a bit of an anomaly from the “show, don’t tell” rule. It isn’t that this story couldn’t have worked—far from it—but there’s an itch that perhaps this take worked better on the page. The pieces are all there, but it’s up to Jones and Redmayne to pep the movie up. Harper’s pacing is also quite keen, his direction as wide-eyed as Wren herself. It’s when the two keep rising and keep getting lightheaded that the movie finds its stride, despite the truth that its progression into the stratosphere can feel a little forced.
[… T]he biggest shortcoming here is the complete disinterest in science, which, for the profession and motivation, feels like a cheat.
When it does get there, though, it reaches those no-frill thrills it’s been reaching towards. You want someone to endure gyroscopic gymnastics 27,000 feet above the ground with ice crystals covering their hands? You’ll get it. You might not get it as much as you want, but it is there, and it’s done well enough. Mark Eckersley cuts the scenes in question with enough spatial and temporal awareness to distract from George Steel’s cinematography, which isn’t too flattering in how it juxtaposes visual effects with actors.
But even with the bouts of technical mediocrity, the biggest shortcoming here is the complete disinterest in science, which, for the profession and motivation, feels like a cheat. There’s a curiosity at most. There’s no inquisitiveness, though, placing all its eggs into an entertainment basket. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s probably because of a flashback stalling what could have been a linear narrative. Harper gets a rise out of his characters, however, and those willing to look over its flaws might find more than just some thin air.
The Aeronauts floats into select theaters this Friday, December 6 before hitting Amazon Prime on December 20.