It is unfortunate that some films will be largely contained to the small screen. Though some may translate quite well, others, Amazon’s The Aeronauts included, find their greatest moments through visuals that simply cannot be scaled down without losing some of what made them enthralling in the first place. Though it has a fairly limited release and will soon be available to stream on all your devices should you have Amazon Prime or decide to pay whatever they charge for a rental, I implore all of you reading this to seek out The Aeronauts while it remains in theaters and go see it in IMAX or any other format that will give you a massive screen.
The Aeronauts is the sort of proper adventure film that we don’t see nearly enough. It follows balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones playing an amalgam of real life historical figures) and scientist James Glaisher (a real pioneer of weather forecasting portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) as they attempt to reach the highest altitude of any person in history and take readings of the atmosphere that would be essential to predicting weather patterns. Most of the film is filled with scenes of the mission unfolding in near real-time. Where many films would build up to the big achievement, this one starts with it and intersperses flashbacks into the downtime in the flight to fill in the background information as to how our two heroes came to meet and work together. Thankfully, these flashbacks are fairly brief and kept to a minimum, as they are by far the weakest parts of the film and always left me checking my watch, hoping to return to the balloon.
The scenes on the balloon, unlike those on the ground, were riveting. I don’t have any particular fear of heights but seeing the images of the balloon flying above an endless expanse below on a massive IMAX screen were so strikingly convincing that I jumped in my seat a few times at the feeling I might actually be about to fall overwhelmed me. Even when the peril of a forty thousand foot drop wasn’t immediately present, there were beautiful sweeping vistas showing the wonder of the skies or the urban sprawl of London that were truly breathtaking.
Beyond simply being visually stunning, the balloon sequences deftly alternated between life threatening peril and quiet moments for character development. Always giving just enough time to breathe before another storm or lack of oxygen threatened our heroes, the pauses in tension for brief conversations were always appreciated and never delved into the clunky, over expository language that can burden so many films. Those parts were saved for the mostly terrible flashbacks. Jones and Redmayne have an awkwardly compelling chemistry that we first saw in 2014’s The Theory of Everything and Tom Harper taps into it once again to great effect here. In a brief opening, we find that Redmayne’s Glaisher is a scientist who takes the flight very seriously as an opportunity to make measurements. Jones’ Amelia Wren, on the other hand, plays up the theatrics of it to sell the balloon trip to the audience paying for it with such tricks as a flying dog and a clownish outfit. The rapport between these two characters who depend on each other to complete their missions, but are opposite in many ways drives the dialogue, segments of the plot through a number of clichés that are nonetheless entertaining, especially as they evolve from friendly banter to life or death decision-making.
The plot is fairly simple and much of the dialogue falls a bit flat, only being salvaged by two skilled performers who keep it light, but it can be forgiven for the spectacle of the action. In a setting that is simultaneously as big as the world and smaller than the room I’m writing this in, the film is able to deliver a number of situations that are as exciting as anything from the action movie of the week. Of course we know the ending going into it but that doesn’t mean the threat of danger doesn’t seem real, especially when a giant screen makes the perilous drop seem like it faces you, the viewer, as well.