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If you see The Aeronauts, you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with an explanation for how it came to be. It’s the fictionalized story of budding meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and tragic pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) taking one momentous hot air balloon flight. They are willing to risk their lives to break the human altitude record, and in several thrilling set pieces, they do just that. The best one comes right at the start, as they navigate a thunderstorm on their initial ascent. Glaisher and Wren get hurled out of the basket, and survive only by grabbing the rope with the tips of their fingers. Director Tom Harper stages these sequences deftly, using seamless CGI in the wide shots and capturing the forced intimacy of the basket in extreme close-ups.

The stale backstory of this flight grounds The Aeronauts. We learn that Wren was still reeling from the death of her husband, which occurred on a previous flight, when she meets the idealistic young Glaisher, an outcast from the Royal Scientific Society who needs external funding for his flight. We see them meet at a dance, and of course, there is a spark of romantic interest. The film, surprisingly, has little interest in fanning that spark, and while resisting the urge to turn their professional relationship into something more could be considered admirable, frankly, the film could have used the fire. The flashback scenes are as stiff as their Victorian garb.

A sharper screenplay would have used the flashbacks to provide characterization, instead of perfunctory plot. Wren is defined solely by her trauma (we know she’s grieving because her sister complains that she is sleeping late and forgetting to change her clothes), while Glaisher is given virtually no backstory at all besides his fiery passion for helping mankind through weather prediction. It’s hardly enough to bring the character to life, and Redmayne, who relies too heavily on his inventory of beatific smiles, does little to aid the cause. As a result, the flashbacks add nothing of value and only make the audience more desperate to get back in the air.

When the film indulges in those instincts, it’s thrilling. We have never seen hot air ballooning depicted like this. Glaisher and Wren battle rain, ice, and, of course, wind, and the grandeur of the skies highlights their human frailty. The action sequences are each minor masterpieces, blending both shrewd cinematography and astounding visual effects to create images that feel entirely new to film. It’s a shining example of how technological advances should be used in mainstream movies but rarely are. Instead of imitating what has been done before, The Aeronauts looks to the sky and imagines what could be done next. 

The Aeronauts opens Friday at Avalon Theatre and the Smithsonian’s Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and Airbus IMAX Theater.

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