Do you ever have a moment when your likes or dislikes are unknowingly confirmed? Here, let me explain. Let’s say you’re watching a movie. Let’s say the movie is very boring and you find yourself getting up for more and more snacks because eating is more interesting than watching this movie. Let’s say the movie wraps and you look around yourself at the array of things you’ve just eaten, and you think to yourself, “Goddammit, who wrote this thing?” And then you look up the movie details and you realize that Jack Thorne, the man who is writing the His Dark Materials adaptation you keep being disgruntled by, wrote The Aeronauts, too, the movie you just sat through. And then you scream in agony and shake your fist at the sky and curse Dustin Rowles for the movie assignment he gave you. Oh, and in this entire scenario, you … are me.
The Aeronauts reunites The Theory of Everything costars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones for a movie that should be phenomenally thrilling but is mostly just sort of boring, and that falls into the trap of mistaking technological advancement for character and plot development. Remember Ang Lee’s Gemini Man? Or Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk or Welcome to Marwen? This is sort of like that. As aeronauts who aspire to break the world flight altitude record in 1862, Redmayne’s scientist James Glaisher and Jones’s pilot Amelia Wren are reduced to broad types—he’s finicky; she’s spunky!—and their journey never quite grabs the audience. You can blame the film’s disjointed timeline for that, or the sometimes beautiful, mostly distracting CGI, or the exceptionally bland script. The Aeronauts gives priority to production design over engaging storytelling, and the film never recovers.
Unlikely allies, James and Amelia are both outcasts. A scientist who is convinced that weather operates in a pattern that can be predicted, James yearns for money to fund his research, but he’s laughed away by colleagues and can’t secure investors. No one but best friend John Trew (Himesh Patel, working a solid beard) takes his speeches about meteorology seriously, and James begins to crash society parties to try and scrounge together money for a gas balloon. It’s at one of those events that he meets Amelia, still in mourning after her husband’s death two years earlier. The pair were a popular aeronaut act—even posing in their balloon on their wedding day, with Amelia in her lacy white gown—and Pierre’s (Vincent Perez) death during one of their high-altitude expeditions has left Amelia unmoored. “Do you take anything seriously?” her disapproving sister asks, but she’s ignoring that Amelia clings to the memories of her husband because of her profound loneliness.
James needs a pilot to get him where he needs to go; Amelia needs a second chance in the air to receive closure for Pierre’s passing; and so the two of them set off. The film informs us of the details of their ascent—how high up, and at what temperature—as they battle an unlikely thunderstorm, get caught in snow, and argue amongst themselves. How dangerous could James’s obsessive desire for more data get? And does Amelia still want to live, without Pierre in her life?
To its credit, The Aeronauts nails some frantically tense moments. Cinematographer George Steel keeps the focus tight on Redmayne and Jones when they’re in the balloon’s basket—which was built for the production—and his camera placement legitimately forces us into close quarters with the pair. During a devastating thunderstorm that throws Amelia and James around the balloon, the camera’s perspective slams us around too, and in calmer moments—like when the balloon ends up in the middle of a fluttering swarm of bright yellow butterflies—our view is slightly elevated so it almost feels like we too are floating among those wings. And this is an impressively physical performance from Jones in particular, whose role as pilot means that her body is battered, bloodied, and bruised as she struggles to keep the balloon aloft.
Why, then, does James get more of the heroic moments? Maybe in real life, James Glaisher did save his aeronautical partner—who was never Amelia Wren. Instead, the fictional Wren serves as a composite of a few different female aeronauts (in particular Sophie Blanchard, the first professional balloonist who died more than 40 years before when the film is set, and Margaret Graham, who gained fame as the first British female balloon pilot to fly solo), and she totally replaces the historical figure Henry Coxwell, who actually accompanied Glaisher on this particular flight. On the one hand, sure, insert more female characters into all media! But on the other hand, how this film portrays Amelia—defined totally by the death of her husband and the judgment of her more expectedly feminine sister—makes clear that her crafting was from a male perspective. Toward the end of the film, as James and Amelia warm more to each other, I frantically tweeted “DON’T KISS,” but that’s the way The Aeronauts chooses to position the pair: enemies, then potentially lovers, because that is clearly the only way a man and a woman can choose to interact. Duh! Those are the only options!
It’s not that The Aeronauts is bad, but that it’s mostly just bleh. “This could be more important than our lives,” James yells at Amelia, but the movie doesn’t entirely commit to that danger. When the film does, it leverages its up-in-the-air setting for thrills that will allow you to forgive the sparse characters and plot. But those 15 or so minutes don’t make up for all the other ways The Aeronauts will bore you.
The Aeronauts opens in select U.S. theaters on Dec. 6 and will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 20.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios