The Aeronauts aims for high-flying adventure, but ends up grounded by a rather dull and predictable narrative. The film is a fantasy account of Victorian meteorologist James Glaisher's record-breaking balloon ascent. Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Jack Thorne replace Glaisher's actual partner with a fictional female character. There are no issues with the idea, just the execution. Glaisher's story would seem compelling enough. Instead he becomes second fiddle in a strained melodrama.
The Aeronauts takes place on September 5, 1862. A nervous James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) waits on a balloon platform surrounded by hundreds of cheering spectators. His partner, famed pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), arrives on top of a carriage to thundering fanfare. She whips the crowd into a frenzy; much to the consternation of the meticulous scientist. As they get into the towering balloon and lift off, Wren reminds him that the spectacle is what funds their endeavor.
The story flashes back as the balloon soars into the sky. Amelia Wren lost her husband (Vincent Perez) several years earlier in another balloon excursion. Wracked with guilt, she shut herself away from society. James Glashier was mocked by the scientific establishment. His belief in accurately predicting the weather was ridiculed. Glashier could not raise the money, or get other balloonists to test his theories. He reaches out to Amelia for a chance to save both of their reputations. They find friendship, resolve, and greatness as the balloon encounters significant dangers.
The Aeronauts has a top tier cast and good visual effects assembled for this Amazon original, but fails to inspire or excite. The problem is that the characters are not interesting. This is a critical flaw when the subject matter is a balloon hurtling into the unknown. Amelia Wren's PTSD reactions to her husband's death feels mechanical. The same goes for her treatment by the snooty, sexist male upper class. Jack Thorne's script preaches inequality. We clearly understand that she's a woman in a man's world. At the same time, James Glaisher's struggle to be respected and taken seriously is plodding. His personality is drier than stale bread. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne were endearing as a couple in "The Theory of Everything." Those characters had substance, which is lacking here. It's difficult to root for boring protagonists.
The Aeronauts is loaded with balloon mishaps and heroics. These scenes are well staged, but suffer from the same issues as the plot. There was never a point where I felt the characters were in jeopardy. As the balloon rises, on screen metrics measure their time and distance. This information is also reiterated by the characters' dialogue. The purpose is to show them breaking the altitude record. The moment comes and passes with a yawn. What's supposed to be a climactic moment fizzles. The action is vanilla and lacks teeth.
The Aeronauts has a decent production value, but is not engaging whatsoever. The fictional Amelia Wren storyline was unnecessary. A deeper dive into the life of James Glaisher, in tandem with the balloon exploits, would have been far more entertaining. The Aeronauts is a production of Mandeville Films and FilmNation Entertainment, with limited theatrical distribution by Amazon Studios on December 6th. It will be available to stream globally December 20th on Amazon Prime Video.