I went into The Aeronauts expecting Tom Harper’s movie to either be stunningly great or a total disaster since it’s basically characters trapped on a gas balloon and two actors playing against a green screen. But I was wrong, and The Aeronauts is perfectly pleasant if a little forgettable. It’s a story about two people who need to rely on each other to accomplish a mission and overcome their personal baggage. At times, it plays a little like 1860s Apollo 13, and at other times it’s just a period drama featuring forwarding-thinking individuals. The film’s spark comes not from soaring through the sky, but from leads Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, who have reunited and shown that they have a unique and charming chemistry of people who genuinely care about each other but not in a mawkish, generalized fashion.
Set in London in the early 1860s, pilot Amelia Rennes (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) are about to embark on a unique expedition in a gas balloon to go higher than any person has before so that Glaisher can take various measurements in order to advance the fledgling field of meteorology. His scientific cohorts don’t really believe in his mission and he doesn’t completely get on with Rennes, who understands the job requires an element of showmanship. However, Rennes’ flashy exterior hides her trauma of losing her husband and co-pilot a couple years earlier in a ballooning accident. Together, Rennes and Glaisher, despite being mismatched, must rely on each other it they’re to brave the elements and return safely.
The Aeronauts is a pretty simple and straightforward expedition movie that just happens to be on a balloon instead of a ship. You’ve got your standard beats where some weather element that endangers the craft, the passengers must accomplish some act of derring-do, and the expedition continues. One would think that a balloon wouldn’t give its passengers much room to maneuver, but Harper keeps the action feeling dynamic and it’s unfortunate that most people will probably catch this film on streaming rather than the big screen since the director makes good use of the frame and the vastness of his characters’ surroundings. I don’t think The Aeronauts is going to launch a slew of gas balloon movies, but the unique environment works here.
When your entire movie basically revolves around two people, you have to nail the casting, so it was a wise move to reunite Jones and Redmayne, who worked so well together in The Theory of Everything. Although their roles and relationship are different from that Oscar-winning film, the duo retains their deep well of affection. The relationship between Rennes and Glaisher isn’t sexual or perhaps even romantic, but it’s more like two people who have no choice but to rely on each other. They’re a little more than co-workers and a little less than best friends, but there’s enough room for the relationship to evolve and change. No matter which way it goes, we always remain invested in our leads thanks largely to the performances rather than anything particularly noteworthy in the characters.
Sometimes all you want is a good, old-fashioned adventure movie, and The Aeronauts works well for what it is. It’s not the most exciting movie you’ll see all year, but I was never bored while I was watching it. It is, fittingly, light fare where you get to watch two charming actors playing two likable characters trying to survive a dangerous scientific mission. It’s not challenging, but The Aeronauts excels at providing some nice thrills.
The Aeronauts opens December 6th.