A harrowing, heart-pounding thrill ride takes off with The Aeronauts

Review by C.J. Bunce

At one level The Aeronauts is a welcome reminder of how much humans take the science and technological achievements of their forbearers for granted.  It is a harrowing adventure, heart-pounding like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (the story of a climb to the top of Mount Everest), and will leave you feeling like you, too, have spent a few hours dangling from the top of a temporarily frozen gas balloon on a record-breaking flight in 1862.  And the Mount Everest comparison is no joke, as the balloonists soon realized what happens to the body on a climb that high was happening to them, including the addled brain from hypoxia.  Of course this flight was 91 years before Edmund Hillary made his record-breaking ascent at 29,029 feet, about 6,000 feet lower than the real-life flight documented in The Aeronauts, so everything they learned on their balloon flight was new.

The real-life scientist James Glaisher is played by Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and the balloon pilot–a fictional composite named Amelia Rennes–is played by Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)–reuniting both Oscar-nominated stars of the historical, scientist biopic The Theory of Everything (which earned Redmayne his first Oscar).  Glaisher seeks to prove that the study of weather can result in the possible prediction of weather and seeks the expert aeronaut Rennes to partner with him so he can prove his theories to the doubting aristocrats of London.  To do that he needed to get higher into the sky than ever before.  Rennes’s role was based on actual aeronaut balloonists Henry Coxwell and Margaret Graham, with even more elements based on Sophie Blanchard, who was the first woman to work as a professional balloonist, and, like Jones’s character, became famous as aeronaut following her husband’s death.

The Aeronauts is based on the death-defying feats of aeronauts in Richard Holmes’ 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.  Since the real flight itself lasted less than two hours aloft, the film is a great character study and closed room story, with an undeniable friendly, non-romantic chemistry between the two leads.  But it’s Jones’s circus-esque, Flying Wallendas-like showmanship and stunts that will make you want to come right back and watch it again.  Inspiring, soaring, and adventurous, it’s the kind of film you’ll want to show kids to get them excited about being all they can be.

Jones does it all (along with her stunt crew, of course), hanging from ropes, climbing atop the balloon once it reaches freezing heights, and dangling by her feet after passing out–if you ever wanted to try a hot air balloon ascent, after watching this you’ll either want to do it more, or run wildly away.  Jones also creates an incredibly likeable and inspiring heroine of the Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride variety.  Closed set and safety ropes or not, the actress swings around the balloon basket so carefree, and handles the ropes like a 19th century sailor atop a ship’s mast, your heat is going to drop several times even before the action takes off.  And she gets to display some Scarlett O’Hara-like moments of frustration that people should be looking at during awards season.

Fans of the steampunk world will appreciate the replication of the real thing, from gorgeous historical costumes created by Alexandra Byrne (Murder on the Orient Express, Phantom of the Opera, Doctor Strange) to art direction by Alice Sutton (Bohemian Rhapsody, Assassin’s Creed), and production design by David Hindle (The King’s Speech, The Firm) and Christian Huband (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hugo, John Carter).  The Aeronauts represents that era we rarely see at the movies.

The film makes for the kind of larger-than-life adventure that is perfect for the big screen.  Cinematographer George Steel (Robin Hood, Black Mirror) makes the audience feel weightless at times, as if this was a film taking place in outer space (which as explained in the film it is quite like).  He also uses camera angles to make the audience jump and grab onto something nearby, the kind of picture perfect for IMAX.  Ever have that dream of falling from 30,000 feet up?  Steel, along with director Tom Harper (War & Peace, Peaky Blinders), mimic that feeling just right here.

Who knew balloon flight could have such nail-biting action?  Highly recommended for all audiences, the exciting adventure The Aeronauts is in theaters in limited release now, and is available today streaming exclusively here at Amazon.

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