The Aeronauts

Amazon Studios

I have to confess, the trailer for The Aeronauts made me laugh out loud. It made the movie seem, to me, like an over-produced special effects carnival that looked not only preposterous but hopelessly ambitious. I was only partly wrong.

First of all, let me say The Aeronauts is not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. In fact, it’s not bad at all. It’s not great, but it’s certainly not bad. It is a special effects marvel that is over-produced, but it is also surprisingly simple, the opposite of ambitious, at least from a story perspective.

The Aeronauts is based on the true story of a scientist (Eddie Redmayne) and a hot air balloon pilot (Felicity Jones) who, in 1862, attempt to break the record for how high a human being has ever flown in the air. The whole movie is set in one day, interspersed with flashbacks to color in their stories. It really is that simple. The movie is shot in real time, which provides a great sense of the brevity of this massive endeavor, and makes it even more astounding, considering all they go through in such a short period of time.

Based on the 2013 book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, by Richard Holmes, screenwriters Tom Harper and Jack Thorne focus on the real-life balloon flight that attempted to break the flight altitude record, with budding meteorologist James Glashier and aeronaut Henry Coxwell aboard. Harper and Thorne decided to alter history a bit for the movie and replaced Coxwell with a fictional female character named Amelia Wren, who is played by Jones. This swap is at the heart of what The Aeronauts is as a movie, because that intentional nod to feminism is what gives this film both its emotional depth and slightly heavy-handed sense of political correctness. The movie’s painfully obvious desire to have a female character portrayed to be just as adventurous, ambitious and fearless as a male character—even more so, in fact—feels just a little over the top. And it felt a little patronizing (and pandering) as well, especially considering this film is written, directed and produced by men.

Even so, however, The Aeronauts features some stunning special effects and action sequences. The canvas of this film is used in full, as vistas are gorgeous and the senses of height, danger and weather are all created masterfully. The scenes on the ground are standard, seen-it-before stuff, but when the film is in the air, it is compelling. Redmayne and Jones are not actors who thrill me, but they are both fine for me here, and don’t detract from the experience.

You might be amazed that they built a full-length action movie with so few moving parts, but they did. And The Aeronauts is a visual spectacle that is thrilling for the whole family.