In 1862, British meteorologist James Glaisher and co-pilot Henry Coxwell flew a hot-air balloon deep into the London skies, breaking the world record for flight altitude at 38,999 feet and barely making it back alive. That story provides the basis for “The Aeronauts,” with one major fabrication, as the movie swaps Cowell for fictional co-pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who helps an enterprising Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) navigate horrific storm clouds, diminished oxygen, and sudden balloon malfunctions as the pair careen through an engrossing big-screen spectacle far better than the simplified dramatic beats that pad out its runtime.
“The Aeronauts” throws historical accuracy to the wind, but at least does justice to the thrill of early flight, using new technology to enhance an old-fashioned survival story. Glaisher’s atmospheric studies played an important role in early weather forecasts. “The Aeronauts,” however, spends less time exploring his research than the sheer peril of his flight. As James and Amelia ascend, the movie builds to acrophobic extremes as the land recedes from sight, suggesting a CGI-enhanced variation of the suspenseful climb in “Free Solo”; similarly, it borrows a page from “Gravity” as the pair careen back to Earth. It’s not as immaculately constructed as either movie, but at its best, it echoes their visceral intensity.
British director Tom Harper (tackling surprisingly different material than this year’s country-music drama “Wild Rose”) and co-writer Jack Thorne make the wise decision to construct much of “The Aeronauts” as a two-hander, kicking off the proceedings with the balloon taking flight in the opening minutes, and explaining the conditions leading up to it in a series of flashbacks. These are hit-or-miss: While Amelia’s backstory is an amalgam of several women, her prior flying experiences with her late husband — which ends with his sacrificial demise in an overweight balloon — provide Jones with a credible reason for tackling James’ risky assignment because she has nothing to lose. Redmayne’s James is comparatively underdeveloped, but this flashy reunion for the co-stars of “The Theory of Everything” nevertheless provides them with an endearing excuse to match wits at high altitudes, with Amelia ribbing the stone-faced James about enjoying the view while he keeps track of various measurements.
However, as onscreen numbers keep tabs on the dramatic climb, the real stars of “The Aeronauts” become its special effects. This critic lacks the meteorological knowledge to assess the credibility of various climate-related developments, including a harrowing storm cloud and freezing temperatures that gum up the balloon’s mechanics. But the storybook imagery of the tiny craft drifting through hulking white clouds (and even kissing the dark void of space) certainly holds appeal regardless of its scientific foundation.
The movie’s best scene finds Jones scaling an icy balloon as her frost-bitten hands go bloody, and allows the actress — whose “Rogue One” turn failed to make her into an A-list action star — to throw herself into a gripping sequence that requires her to careen from utter terror to exhaustion and arrive at a new level of determination. From a pure craft perspective, this dynamic sequence towers above the rest of the movie.
There’s enough potential with the balloon’s feats to justify an entire feature-length experience set within its basket, but “The Aeronauts” constantly interrupts the journey to shoehorn random tangents on the ground, and busies up the drama with underdeveloped side characters. Among them: a wasted flight coordinator played by Himesh Patel, who’s saddled with the groan-worthy line that “some reach for the stars, some push others toward them.” Likewise, the dynamic between James and Amelia in their flashbacks has a half-baked quality that seems odd given its lack of historical foundation. “I want to rewrite the rules of the air, and I need your help!” he declares, as the music swells, and that’s pretty much all it takes for her to sign on.
“The Aeronauts” may be better experienced as pure fantasy, a sensory hat-tip to the moment humankind liberated itself from the boundaries of gravity and began to explore the stratosphere. It’s not the last word on the subject, and at times does a disservice to the true scientific accomplishments that inspired it. Still, when so many supersized blockbusters take the potential of CGI action for granted, “The Aeronauts” finds a fresh use for it by turning the exhilaration of discovery into a real visual treat.
“The Aeronauts” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Amazon Studios opens it theatrically for a limited run on December 6, followed by Amazon Prime on December 20.