The Aeronauts purports to tell the story of the first weatherman, whom we’ve never heard of because he was too embarrassed to ever claim that title. His name was James Glaisher, pronounced like the melting harbingers of global environmental doom, so who better to play him than Eddie Redmayne. According to this movie James is obsessed with ascending to great heights in an air balloon so he can predict when it will rain. In London. After he conquers this brain-twister he’ll move on to predicting sandstorms in the Sahara by standing on a dune for 5 days straight without sunblock.
Anyway, the movie wants to use this flimsy premise, so, up, up and away! Thank god for green screens and wind machines.
In reality, James went up with a fellow male scientist, but who wants to see that bore-fest when we just sat through a bunch of waistcoated blowhards arguing over electricity? So thank the heavens the movie replaces some crumb-bearded academic with derring-do Felicity Jones. She’s a famed balloonist named Amelia (get it?) Wren (GET IT?), a small yet feisty Victorian woman with her own hot air balloon factory, which James needs because no one will finance a trip that’s purpose is to tell Londoners when they’ll need an umbrella (ALWAYS, James. The equation scribbled on your chalkboard ends in the answer ALWAYS to the power of ALWAYS.) Even though the excursion would only take an hour, that’s an hour with Eddie Redmayne, whom Felicity thought she was rid of after the Stephen Hawking movie, so she declines. Also, the last time Amelia went up was with her husband, a Frenchman named Pierre Rennes (which is pronounced ‘wren’…sigh…), and she returned sans epoux, the French term for someone mysteriously ‘losing’ their husband 23,000 feet above the earth. Was he abducted by aliens? Carried off by a pterodactyl?
The movie opens as Amelia and James launch into the sky in their beautiful balloon (we learn later he convinced her by saying she’d get to see snowflakes). There are crowds and much fanfare, and the scene feels very Wizard of Oz. Amelia even has a cute little dog, which she tosses out of the basket as soon as they’re high enough for the fall to kill it. Oh, but look, it has a little parachute! She’s not a psychopath after all!
Once they’re up, the movie can get to making us forget the silly earthbound bits with magnificent shots of the little red-and-white balloon ascending through massive cloud formations, and thrilling sequences as our pair are tossed around in the basket during storms and losing their fingers to frostbite and minds to oxygen deprivation. It’s not all thrills and chills, though. Contrived moments of tenderness and clumsy humor are also part of this ride. At one point James tosses out a messenger pigeon and it drops like a stone because it instantly freezes to death. “Well, that didn’t work!” he says, like he’s suddenly a Marx brother. Are we supposed to laugh at this movie’s delight in animal abuse? If they want us to laugh, toss Eddie Redmayne out of that balloon.
At the climax, we think (hope) James has died, and maybe the twist here is that Amelia is a serial killer, who takes her victims up in hot air balloons where they die of hypothermia or jump out of the basket in fits of dementia. Plausible deniability, right?
Well, it’s not that twisted, but because of Jones, the movie ends up being much more enjoyable than you’d think from the premise. She shines in these ballsy gal roles, and it’s great to watch her get all the well-staged action sequences while Redmayne fiddles with his instruments and his acting tics, which always seem to suggest a smidgeon of autism or epilepsy, even when his characters aren’t supposed to have such afflictions.
The lighting is lovely, the costumes beautifully detailed, the balloon satisfyingly steam-punk. The Aeronauts has all the delight of a kid’s bedroom in the home of an anal interior designer, a perfectly tolerable place to spend an hour and a half. But then mommy needs her wine.
The Aeronauts opens nationwide December 6 and streams on Amazon Prime December 20.
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