The Aeronauts is the soaring story of some of the first people to go higher than anyone had ever been before. They ascended over Victorian rooftops and beyond the clouds with just a wicker basket, some hot air and unshakeable human aspiration -- and very nice hair (because these aeronauts are played by star Felicity Jones and finder Eddie Redmayne).
The Aeronauts is in theaters in the US starting on Friday. It's then available for streaming online on Amazon Prime Video from Dec. 20, but thanks to some nail-biting adventure in breathtakingly big skies it's genuinely worth catching on a big screen.
Having previously appeared with Jones in Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Redmayne once again plays a historical figure who dared to dream. This time he's James Glaisher, a real-life meteorologist who in the 1860s took to the skies to advance the study of weather conditions. The film follows a single record-breaking flight in a hot air balloon, interspersed with ground-based flashbacks of the balloonists battling the restrictions of Victorian society.
I know what you're thinking. That sounds cozy. Sedate. Safe. Like your mom would like it.
And she probably would. But the filmmakers clearly know how gentle it sounds, and they nail you to the seat from the very first scene. An unexpectedly intense opening hurls you into a maelstrom that owes more to space age action movies than Victorian costume dramas, as the aeronauts are violently whipped back and forth by the relentless fury of nature -- and a stricken figure plunges to the unforgiving earth.
The film is keen to remind you that these early balloonists pushed the limits of technology and human endurance. Venturing into a sky they had yet to fully understand, these explorers of the atmosphere were the equivalent of astronauts launching themselves into the abyss. And so, The Aeronauts combines bravura camerawork with clever visual effects to toss characters and audience through nail-biting peril and exhilarating action.
Basically, it's Gravity in petticoats.
The film is primarily a two-hander between Jones and Redmayne in their precarious basket, creaking and shaking miles above the safety of the earth as dark clouds loom on the horizon. Redmayne plays Glaisher as a dreamy academic scribbling in his notebooks while the balloon sails skyward. In charge of the flight is Felicity Jones as Amelia Rennes, an enchanting fictional composite of various real daredevil balloonists, male and female. Rennes brings a touch of glitz and glamor to the scientific endeavor, and although this flighty performer is weighed down by the ballast of grief, she's the spiky action hero of the piece. Jones scrambles from the basket and swings from the rigging to keep the balloonists from plunging to their doom. These scenes are daringly and dizzyingly shot to immerse you in the danger of the flight.
Of course, this is still a period piece, and some conventions have to be observed. We're introduced to the historical setting with a shot of a Dickensian urchin running across cobbles, pushing his way past hoop skirts to the front of a crowd. In between the balloon action, we're brought down to earth with flashbacks to the social struggles of our two heroes: The heroine's sister primly disapproves of her unladylike adventures, while mutton-chopped elder statesmen scoff heartily at the young scientist's hypotheses.
As a side note, it must have been great being a scientist in ye olde days. All you had to do was grow huge sideboards, wear starched collars and pour scorn on anyone who did any actual science. Honestly, watching films like this and The Lost City of Z, it's a wonder anyone ever invented telephones or worked out the periodic table or discovered electricity.
Familiar elements aside, The Aeronauts is a hugely slick piece of entertainment. From the star wattage of Jones and Redmayne to the genuine majesty of the widescreen shots showing the balloon soaring above the clouds, The Aeronauts enjoyably bears you aloft.
As a free-floating celebration of human aspiration, The Aeronauts is a life-affirming journey to understand and appreciate the world we live in. And that's not just hot air.