The Aeronauts: Full of Hot Air, by David Bax
The opening sequence of Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is just a ton of fun. Felicity Jones, in clothes and make-up so garish as to approach clowndom, tears through London in a carriage, arriving not a moment too late for a public balloon launch featuring herself as the basket’s star occupant. Much to the chagrin of the bookish co-pilot played by Eddie Redmayne, she delights the gathered crowd with jokes, acts of derring-do and the exploits of her tiny pet dog. It turns out this is all just an act for her, a ploy for publicity that will help her accomplish her true aims up in the sky. But it’s a shame that it’s an act for The Aeronauts too; it’s the last time we’ll be invited to enjoy ourselves in the whole smug, slushy affair.
Jones is Amelia Wren, a fictionalized composite of real life balloon-adventuring women Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham, among other figures. Redmayne is James Glaisher, the pioneering meteorologist. The Aeronauts is a loose retelling of Glaisher’s balloon flight of September 5, 1862, which broke the world altitude record.
As our leads soar over a computer generated recreation of mid-19th century London, taking measurements and arguing with one another, we are treated to flashbacks detailing the events that brought them together on this day. For Glaisher, it’s a mission to confirm a hypothesis about the atmosphere. For Wren, it’s a desire to triumph over past tragedy. These are introduced clumsily, with entrées like, “My sister wanted to know why I would go up in a balloon again.”
It matters not that neither of the two women on whom Wren is based ever took a flight with Glaisher or that most of what takes place in The Aeronauts is invented. It does matter, though, that it feels invented. Everything that goes wrong on Wren and Glaisher’s flight is a manufactured obstacle, a video game puzzle we know is going to be solved. Like an old-timey version of Gravity, it’s a plastic thrill ride (that puts YOU! in the DRIVER’S SEAT!–or BASKET!). If you already have a fear of heights, you may start to sweat but that’s no substitute for actual stakes.
The Aeronauts never seems to get anywhere because it’s too damned full of itself to do any exploring. And the screenplay (written by Harper and Jack Thorne) wants you to feel the same self-satisfaction. Glaisher’s flashbacks turn this into one of those movies where everyone doubts the protagonist but we get to feel smart because we know he’s right. Why else would we be watching a movie about him? Meanwhile, he comes across more like a megalomaniacal supervillain than anything else when he talks about floods, droughts and famine with a wistful smile on his face because he’s so sure that he’s going to solve such problems. His only character arc is to achieve the totally novel, profound realization that science can’t account for things like beauty.
Wren and Glaisher may be based on a collection of real life human beings but they don’t act like them. What they actually resemble are the Jerry Bruckheimer-style action heroes lampooned in Team America whose only obstacles are that the world doesn’t realize how amazing they are yet.