Whatever one thinks of the pioneering role of Netflix as the great disrupter of existing cinematic release structures, it’s hard to see how other streaming services move forward from here. Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts reputedly cost $40 million dollars, with Amazon Studios picking up the tab, and it’s hard to see how releasing the film in a handful of US cinemas and then dropping it on Prime with little fanfare is going to justify that expense. The Aeronauts is a beautifully-realised tribute to a brave woman who pioneered the science of ballooning, Amelia Wren; the knowledge that Wren didn’t actually exist somewhat lets the air out of the balloon of Harper’s film.
Wren, played by Felicity Jones, is a headstrong young lady with a taste for grandiose gestures; she arrives on a carriage and dazzles a crowd with acrobatics, much to the derision of her partner-in-flight, James Glashier, played by Eddie Redmayne. In real life, Glashier was partnered for this epic flight by a man called Henry Coxwell, but presumably genuine heroism was not to the taste of Harper and writer Jack Thorne, and so The Aeronauts takes the form of a warm tribute to a feminist icon who didn’t exist. There are so many great women in history whose stories are neglected, that it seems pointless for two men to feel they have to invent one to make the feat they’ve chosen to describe relevant, but that’s not the only problem here.
As Wren and Glashier take off, she throws a dog out of the balloon, the crowd gasp, but the dog falls safely to earth in a parachute. Landing a parachute is a counter-intuitive business whereby one had to train’s one’s mind not to reach out with one’s extremities as ground-rush hits, so it seems both unlikely and cruel for Wren to do this to a dog, hitting another bum note. As the flight begins, we get a flashback structure to see how dedicated a scientist Glashier is, and that Wren has a tragic back-story involving her husband falling out of a balloon. These flashbacks contain no real advances in terms of information, but interrupts the flight in a way that robs it of claustrophobia and drama.
And yet The Aeronauts has a great look when it comes to flight, with beautiful vistas and stunning cloud formations and some genuine high-drama as Wren attempts to rescues an immobile Glashier once the cold gets to him. This involves clambering around on top of a balloon at 35,000 feat, and despite the inherent fakeness of the photography, there’s a few breath-taking moments in here. Whatever admiration Wren might deserve is quickly dismissed in a ridiculous ending in which the scientist somehow knows something about balloons that Wren doesn’t, saving them both, but opening up questions about why Wren doesn’t know something so obvious, and which could easily have saved her husband. Meanwhile Yesterday’s Himesh Patel stays on the ground, chewing his beard and wondering how he could steal the film from a couple of toothy showboats like Jones and Redmayne.
Plot-holes and narrative mistakes abound in The Aeronauts, a lovely-to-look-at mis-fire that shows that Amazon can burn money on a Netflix scale when it comes down to it. Redmayne and Jones are fine, the lighting and the scope are impressive, but the drama isn’t really there; what goes up must come down, but Netflix’s big-spending model really isn’t something for aspiring streamers to copy.
The Aeronauts will be on Amazon US from Dec 20th 2019.