Five years after the Oscar-nominated Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (2014) left actors Eddie Redmayne with an Academy Award and Felicity Jones with her first — and, to date, only — bit of Oscar recognition, their latest collaboration, The Aeronauts, drifts into theaters. The film seems poised to come and go like a speck somewhere up in the sky, nuzzled between two clouds, some unidentified object that passes from one’s mind as quickly and lazily as it entered. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s a mid-budget awards-season spectacle of sorts. In a year without botched Scorsese-grafting comic-book behemoths like Joker and hilariously unreal-sounding streaming originals like The Two Popes, it might have garnered more than a blip of attention from critics and audiences alike.
A key component of what made The Theory of Everything so watchable — not exceptional, mind you, but watchable — was the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking. One would think that, judging by the success of their first collaboration, their next project together would at least approach the marquee name recognition of The Theory of Everything’s biographical subject. Alas, it wasn’t to be. The Aeronauts tells the story of a hot-air-balloon pilot named Amelia Rennes (Jones) and a scientist named James Glaisher (Redmayne) who came together in London circa 1862 to fly higher than anyone else in history. For Glaisher, the journey will provide the data to prove once and for all whether weather can be predicted. For Rennes, the journey will allow for equal parts introspection and adventure. It’s a bewildering setup, which might be why screenwriters Tom Harper and Jack Thorne (the former of also directing) chose to jump right into things.
As Glaisher and his partner, Josh Trew (Himesh Patel), await Rennes’ arrival, the gathered onlookers grow antsier by the minute. Once she arrives — riling up the crowd atop her carriage, leaping onto the platform, and cartwheeling into the balloon’s basket — the pilot and the scientist set off for the skies. Forgoing typical exposition, the two are up, up, and away before some audience members will even be comfortable in their seats. (A recliner, most likely — even if your local theater isn’t equipped with them yet, The Aeronauts will arrive on Amazon Prime just a couple of weeks after its theatrical opening.) It doesn’t take long for trouble to set in, though: As Trew wisely acknowledged from the ground before liftoff, the clouds in the sky look awfully menacing on this particular afternoon. A vicious gale is soon mercilessly pounding the balloon and its two passengers, tacitly setting the tone for the rest of their perilous journey. It’s the first obstacle the two face, but it’s about 30,000 feet from the last they’ll encounter before the journey’s through.
Harper and Thorne’s screenplay chooses to fill the viewer in with pertinent flashbacks as the film progresses. Some dialogue from Glaisher sends the story back two years earlier to explain how he secured the funding for the trip; a landmark in the London skyline transports Rennes to a memory of a prior excursion with her late husband. It’s more or less effective, but the difference in scope between the present-day sequences and the relevant excerpts of balloon-related info from the past can be somewhat discordant. Harper and Thorne betray their own gimmick by starting the adventure off immediately and establishing that it’ll play out in real time only to spend half the time jumping back to much less interesting scenes to pad the story. It’s possible to envision what The Aeronauts would look like if all these flashbacks could be jettisoned in exchange for some well-written, modestly expository conversation in the clouds between Glaisher and Rennes. Of course, the age-old expression in filmmaking is “show, don’t tell,” and it’s possible that a record-breaking, death-defying balloon ride studded with exposition dumps would have been just as (if not more) clunky as the flashbacks. If anything, the drab sequences in the past make the viewer appreciate the spectacle of the present-day adventure even more.
“Spectacle” really is the perfect word to describe it, by the way — from the get-go, the excitement of being in the basket of the hot-air balloon and the extravagance of the visuals tens of thousands of feet up in the sky are far superior to any scene set on the ground. These peaks make the valleys that much more tiresome, but one has to take the good with the bad. (It is based on a true story, no matter how unbelievable — scenes that contextualize their journey with allusions to grief, loneliness, father issues, and a desire to fit in were inevitable from the start.) With this literal up-and-down narrative giving a whole new meaning to three-act structure conventions like rising action, climax, and falling action, one wonders what a director like Robert Zemeckis could have done with The Aeronauts. A pioneer himself (of digital filmmaking, not ballooning), Zemeckis is at the forefront of what one could call screensaver cinema: gorgeous shots of breathtaking landscapes that were created entirely in post-production. It’s the same phenomenon present in any hundred-million-dollar Marvel movie or other studio tentpole, the main difference being The Aeronauts was made with a fraction of the funding such behemoths receive.
As it stands, the film — sustained on a meager $40 million, a respectable sum for a biopic but not enough for an adventure on the same technical level as something like The Walk (2015) — does its best with what it has. Woefully, that includes a tremendous amount of bad dialogue juxtaposed with some impressive (yet underfunded) visuals and a gripping expedition at its core. In truth, Glaisher and Rennes should have tossed some of the script over the side if they were so set on getting rid of any excess weight. Lines like “Women weren’t meant to be in balloons,” a sentiment spoken to Rennes by her sister in a strange attempt to establish some sort of modern-day cultural relevance, are so confounding that it’s not outlandish to wish for something a little less unwieldy. (Not as outlandish as the film itself, at least — The Aeronauts is without a doubt the weirdest attempt at award-winning cinema in recent memory.) Like the film’s subjects, director Tom Harper dares to go where no other film has gone before: an uncharted territory where the balloon sequences from Around the World in 80 Days (1956) meet the balloon sequences in Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013). Does it work? Is The Aeronauts actually worthy of awards? These questions apparently don’t matter when there’s an opportunity to see two A-listers being melodramatic in the basket of a hot-air balloon on the same website where you order Instant Pots and phone chargers.