The Aeronauts Review: The Historic Hot Air Balloon Ride from Hell

Amazon Studios

The Aeronauts, a historical adventure of meteorology, frostbite, and hot air ballooning, dropped on Amazon Prime Video without fanfare last December. The film marks the second 2019 release—after Wild Rose—by director Tom Harper (not to be confused with director Tom Hooper of Les Misérables, The King’s Speech, and Cats fame). In spite of historical inaccuracies, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than with leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in their second biopic together (The Theory of Everything).

In 1862, real-life meteorological scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) and fictional pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) prepare for a hot air balloon flight to a record-breaking 23,000 feet. James sets out to prove that, with a correct understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, weather can be predicted. Amelia flies in memory of her late husband Pierre (Vincent Perez), who tragically died in the couple’s last hot air balloon expedition.

As they launch, Amelia theatrically sells the trip to the crowd gathered on the ground for the historic event. Coated in a healthy amount of stage makeup, she dances her way to the launch platform, swings from the balloon’s ropes, and throws a dog (equipped with a parachute) out of the balloon from hundreds of feet in the air. This chills James’s disposition toward Amelia, but after a death-defying (and accidental) trip through a storm cloud, she proves herself to him as a serious scientist. When the trip becomes more dangerous yet, they must rely on one another to survive.

The Aeronaut’s action set pieces are enough to make Tom Cruise jealous. It’s safe to say that Jones wasn’t actually thrown from a hot air balloon basket at 10,000 feet (which Cruise would absolutely insist on), but Harper and his visual effects artists create tension without leaving a soundstage. Even a moderate fear of heights will intensify your unease as Redmayne and Jones are thrown about their sky-bound, wicker cage.

Jones’s Amelia is a figment of Harper and co-writer Jack Thorne’s imagination. Amelia replaces Henry Coxwell, the real aeronaut who accompanied James on the record-breaking trek. It’s Coxwell erasure, but considering the number of women who have been written out of history by men eager to take their place, it’s an insignificant injustice. Harper and Thorne could instead inspire a young girl to pursue a career in a STEM field, a group of subject areas that are still deprived of women.

James’s friend John Trew (Himesh Patel) is given a surprisingly rewarding—though not particularly robust—sideplot as the scientist’s only believer. Laughed out of London’s Royal Society, James succeeds in spite of derision from the world’s foremost academics. James and Amelia’s resilience and inquiring minds separate them from their peers. Chemistry between its leads, stunning special effects, and acknowledging under-credited women separate The Aeronauts from other mid-budget action movies.