Not too long ago, accurately predicting the weather was considered only a little more likely than fortune-telling. Depending on where you live, you might still feel that way. But while Aristotle is sometimes called the founder of meteorology, the science as we know it didn’t start taking off until relatively recently.
The Aeronauts opens in 1862, with scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) preparing his equipment in the basket of a hot air balloon. While a large crowd has gathered to watch the launch, takeoff is delayed while he waits for his pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). She arrives standing atop a racing carriage, festooned in a daring party dress and with all the theatrics of a circus ringmaster. Once aloft, she wipes off her makeup and changes into sensible clothes. But the character lines are drawn. James is a stuffy scientist. Amelia is a plucky romantic.
Unfortunately, that’s about all the characterization we get as the balloon is swiftly pulled into a thunderstorm. As likable as they are, it’s hard to be invested in a couple we’ve only just met. Their adventures in the balloon happens almost in real-time, as we learn in flashbacks how they came together. Some of the tension is lost as we already know James will get his expedition off the ground, and Amelia will overcome the fears that have kept her earthbound since the death of her husband. But it helps us get a better idea of who these people are and what drives them.
Where the script falters a bit, Redmayne and Jones are charismatic enough to carry the story with infectious enthusiasm. We share in their wonder with every new discovery.
Like Icharus who flew too close to the sun, once they’ve reached a height higher than any human being before them, James wants to go higher. Whether it’s pride, scientific pursuit, or the lack of oxygen affecting his brain, Amelia reluctantly agrees. His insistence that they continue to climb ultimately puts them in danger, not from the sun but from cold. In an ironic twist, going up was the easy part.
Visually, the movie is stunning. For those of us with a fear of heights, it’s also terrifying. Designed to be seen on the biggest screens possible, the climax may cause vertigo with rollercoaster-like swings of the camera.
The movie opens with the famous line, “Inspired by true events.” Seasoned movie-goers know how flexible that phrase can be. In this case, James Glaisher was a real meteorologist who is noted for his discoveries made from balloons and believed to have reached a height of 31,200 feet in one (though he passed out before that). There’s nothing to suggest, however, that he ever flew with either of the two women who inspired the character of Amelia.
For those interested in the early adventures of meteorology, The Aeronauts may not be terribly helpful. But for those with strong stomachs and appreciation for imaginative visuals, it is a thrilling ride. (Amazon Studios)