The Aeronauts Review
Ignoring the advice of experts, a British man takes on a challenge that will cause him enormous harm and risk his own life, simply to break a world record that's held by the French. The Aeronauts, the second film this year from Wild Rose director Tom Harper, is nothing if not an oversized Brexit metaphor; a major meterological discovery is reimagined as a byproduct of one man's poor, borderline suicidal decisions, and the mistakes he makes along the way seized upon as a guide on what not to do for future generations of scientists.
Very loosely based on scientist James Glaisher's own expedition to 38,000ft, The Aeronauts is at its best when it overlooks the historical context and prioritises pure disaster movie thrills. Harper is caught between two stools, often falling back on prestige drama trappings in the mould of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones' previous screen collaboration (The Theory of Everything), even though his film only provokes a response when it commits to being Gravity in a hot air balloon. If it fully committed to being a pulpy disaster movie, it's likely The Aeronauts would soar to greater heights than it does here.
Amelia Wren (Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) are setting off to the skies above London, hoping to break the height record of 23,000ft set by the French, and make new discoveries as they reach further heights. Of course, the expedition doesn't go to plan, quickly turning into a fight for survival - one that brings back particularly painful memories for Amelia, as her previous husband died after a similarly disastrous balloon accident some years earlier.
The biggest change from the true story is transforming Glaisher's own ballooning partner, Henry Coxwell, into an entirely fictitious female character. This follows the recent trend of having female characters in blockbuster films shown pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to encourage young women to take up roles in these sectors - a worthwhile cause that is nonetheless a cynical and increasingly apparent Hollywood trait. The film doesn't benefit from the gender switch of Glaisher's ballooning partner, and is arguably clumsy even in this regard, what with her motivation to rescue the mission being the memories of her own husband, who took his own life on a similar ballooning mission a few years prior. It's not the best advertisement to get young women involved in science and engineering on their own merits: a female character's strength being owed entirely to her memories of a male romantic partner.
But as stated above, this film is at its best when it's airbound, and stops its preoccupations with the scientific battles and personal struggles happening on the ground. When up in the air, the dynamic between Jones and Redmayne feels very deliberately designed to channel that between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Alfonso Cuarón's taut space thriller, and it benefits from this simplicity of characterisation. It might not have the 3D visual grandeur of Gravity, but this is still a film designed to immerse you in its disaster movie spectacle - and making the tropes as easily digestible as possible is part of the experience. Again, once in the air, this helps The Aeronauts cut to the chase, but means the film stalls every time we're flashing back to the story behind the balloon journey, as you can't build a rewarding drama around characters designed very specifically to be blockbuster archetypes.
The Aeronauts is released in cinemas on November 4th