There's very little about The Aeronauts that doesn't scream prestige film. It's a late fall release (loosely) based on real events depicted in Richard Holmes' book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, and reunites the stars of the Oscar-winning Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, for another uplifting biographical story. But in spite of that, the actual movie plays less like a stuffy awards contender and more like a streamlined, old-fashioned historical adventure interested in entertaining, rather than educating. What it lacks in substance, The Aeronauts compensates for with thrills and emotions, taking audiences on an exhilarating airborn heroes' journey.
The Aeronauts picks up in London circa 1862, where English scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) sets off on a hot air balloon expedition with hotshot pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) to gather atmospheric data that support his theories and bring greater credibility to the budding field of meteorology. The pair clash in the beginning; James is all scientific method and straight to business, whereas Amelia has a sense of showmanship and knows to make a spectacle of their balloon launch. However, as they ascend further, James comes to appreciate there's more to Amelia than meets the eye, and realizes just how traumatized she really is by the death of her husband (a fellow pilot who was killed during a balloon flight gone wrong). It's a good thing, too, since they'll need one another if they're going to break the world flight altitude record - not to mention, make it back down to the ground in one piece.
Written by Jack Thorne (who, between this film and his work on HBO's His Dark Materials, appears to have a passion for stories involving Victorian-era flying vehicles), The Aeronauts is a simple, yet enjoyable tale of derring-do, where its heroes must overcome the elements and unexpected obstacles time and time again, with nothing but their wits and courage to save them. A story about two people traveling in a hot air balloon together could easily become repetitive, but the movie keeps things interesting by smartly jumping back and forth between the flight and the events leading up to it for much of its runtime. There's a fine message at the heart of The Aeronauts about the importance of moving on and upward (whether that means embracing scientific progress or recovering from personal loss), but, admittedly, it never digs all that deeply into it. This, in turn, allows the film to maintain a tight pace and lightweight feeling, at the expense of being a more meaningful piece of storytelling.
That goes double for its characters, who are fairly conventional on paper; James is the typical outsider ridiculed by his peers for his unorthodox ideas, whereas Amelia (who's an amalgamation of a few real-life individuals) is the archetypical woman in a historical setting who challenges the norms of the society around her. But thanks to Redmayne and Jones' potent chemistry, it's easy to believe the pair would come together and care about one another as they set off on their voyage. Their relationship is a platonic one, and there's a welcome intimacy in the moments where they let down their guards and talk openly about the things that motivate them (as well as the traumas that haunt them). The Aeronauts hinges on this dynamic, which only makes the decision to cast Redmayne and Jones all the wiser in retrospect.
In many ways, though, the visuals are as much the stars of The Aeronauts as its actors. There are times when it's obvious that Redmayne and Jones are standing in front of a green screen, sure, but director Tom Harper (Wild Rose) and his DP George Steel (2018's Robin Hood) otherwise do an excellent job of creating the illusion that they really are miles up in the air (those with a fear of heights, you've been warned). The Aeronauts paints its action on a massive canvas, contrasting captivating CGI panoramas with tight-knit, claustrophobic closeups to illustrate how the experience of riding in a hot air balloon basket is both restrictive and freeing all at once. It's too bad, then, that most people will probably end up seeing the film at home on Amazon Prime, now that its limited IMAX run has been scrapped ahead of its streaming premiere.
For the same reason, those who have the opportunity are encouraged to give The Aeronauts a look when it arrives in theaters. It's a survival adventure intended for the big screen, where the experience of watching two people defy the laws of physics with nothing more than a giant basket, balloon, and some gas (precariously held together by a few creaky ropes) becomes a truly awe-inspiring one. If that's not possible, though, The Aeronauts still offers enough rousing entertainment, coupled with an inspiring tale of two heroes and some handsome Victorian attire by costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Mary Queen of Scots), to justify a look - even without a giant screen to make it feel like one false move will send you plunging to your death as you watch it.
The Aeronauts is now playing in select U.S. theaters, and streams on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, December 20. It is 100 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some peril and thematic elements.