Whatever happened to wonder in films? Whatever happened to the sweeping scores layered over long, grand shots of adventure and peril? Why does everything feel so commercialized and insincere nowadays? I feel like whenever big blockbusters make you feel something, you often feel pigeonholed into it, as if the film is forcing you to feel that way. Say what you want about the work of someone like James Cameron, but the beauty of so many of his films is that the grandiose, goosebump-inducing moments that make so many classic films so classic is present without having to unsubtly force it upon you. They let these moments happen organically within its story. This is how I felt leaving The Aeronauts, in that I knew it was not a perfect film by any means, but from a purely technical and sensory standpoint, it left me feeling a sense of wonder that I haven’t felt at the movies in a very long time. This ends up being The Aeronauts’s beauty and its ruin.
It’s 1862 and London is bustling with life and technological advancement. The city is buzzing about the embarkation of the world’s largest air balloon which is set to take flight and break the record for the highest altitude reached by humankind to date, all in order to uncover the origins of the science we now know as meteorology. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is a young scientist looking to prove his theory as to how to predict the weather, an idea his older intellectual counterparts scoff at in disbelief. To prove this, he must travel to great heights, to which only one balloon pilot, Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) is willing to do for him. Wren, however, is taking flight for her own reasons, having not flown since the death of her husband, fellow balloon pilot, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), who was killed in a balloon crash two years earlier, a crash which she barely survived. To study such science, the pair must travel to heights unknown by humankind up to this point in history, and must traverse the tricky science of the upper atmosphere in the process, lest they suffer the same fate as Amelia’s previous balloon journey.
There’s a fabulous 80-minute film to be found in The Aeronauts, one that sequesters us with our two leads for the entirety of its real-time runtime and gives you everything you need through exposition and visual splendor. Call it a 19th Century version of Gravity, if you will. You get a good deal of this in The Aeronauts, though the film is often bogged down by a much more basic period piece about the power of science, spliced in between the exhilaratingly thrilling sequences up in the air, bringing the pace to a sometimes frustrating halt.
While very different from their performances when they were paired together five years earlier in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Redmayne and Jones still possess a magnetic chemistry on-screen that can’t be understated. What I appreciate about the film is that both characters, at least when airborne, don’t necessarily play into the typecasting we’ve come to expect from them at this point. Redmayne is far from a bumbling, awkward klutz, and Jones’s flamboyance for the fabulous shines through her tragic heartache. They aren’t the most well-rounded, deeply developed characters ever, but the performances breathe life into them that most actors without their chemistry wouldn’t be able to achieve.
This being said, as a purely sensory experience, I don’t think a film this year has fulfilled such audio-visual perfection as The Aeronauts, which makes Amazon Studios’s approach to the film’s release all the more frustrating. Despite pouring $80 million into the film and filming with IMAX cameras, Amazon has decided to release the film in a small number of standard theaters for a two-week engagement, following it up with a wide release directly to its Prime Video streaming service. Perhaps, for a film like The Report or Honey Boy, which are intimate looks at real-life events, this would suffice, but for a film that was crafted from the very start to be seen on the biggest screen possible, this is so incredibly disappointing. Even on the big screen, you’re missing half of the image that was captured by the IMAX cameras. With the film now completely bypassing IMAX theaters, even the best-case scenario of viewing the film still feels vastly incomplete.
If you can disregard this knowledge of a much better version of The Aeronauts existing out there, it’s still an exciting, beautiful experience to behold. Directed by Wild Rose helmer Tom Harper, The Aeronauts revels in the art of grand scale. The sheer openness of the skies during such a time when what lied beyond the clouds was as unknown to man as space travel, brings a sense of exploratory wonder to the film’s arguably intimate setting. It’s a film that feels agoraphobic, claustrophobic, and incredibly acrophobic all at the same time, and the ways in which Harper and cinematographer George Steel work with such feelings as the film progresses and the stakes are raised is tense and invigorating to watch.
Complementing the film’s wondrous visuals is an even more fabulous score from Steven Price, which echoes much of what made his score to Gravity so greatly effective. Price’s score doesn’t necessarily hit the cliché beats that a typical period adventure film would have in its musical score, nor does it create something so avant-garde it feels distracting, but it hits something squarely in the middle. You get your sweeping, grandiose crescendos of massive orchestras in your wide shots, but you also get some tender, intimate moments of levity that increase the emotion of the film’s sometimes empty screenplay. It’s arresting, to say the least, but it definitely has cemented itself as a forthcoming favorite of mine to study and write to.
I feel like The Aeronauts would’ve hit a lot harder for me had I been unaware of the film’s fate to be shown almost exclusively through people’s televisions, iPads, and cell phones, rather than on the most gigantic IMAX screens imaginable, as intended. Amazon’s lack of faith in the film leads me to lose that faith in the final product as well, and seeing as much of my wonder and emotion came from being able to see the film on the big screen with an impressive sound system, I fear for its reception on a mere streaming service. For Amazon’s first major blockbuster production, its treatment feels indicative of a much worse film than this one. It has some major pacing issues, and the characters never really feel fleshed out aside from the subtleties put into them by the talented actors behind them, but The Aeronauts doesn’t seek to exist as a quiet, introspective costume drama, but as an adventure of the grandest scale imaginable. To see this cropped into 2.35:1 on a tablet, with no better option (until theaters and exhibitors outside of major cities are willing to actually work with streaming companies to show their films), simply feels like you’re missing a majority of what this film is meant to exist for.
For more information, head to the official The Aeronauts website.
In theaters December 6th, 2019.
Available on Prime Video December 20th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.