“Good movies rarely contain a hot-air balloon.” — Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary
When I think of hot air balloon scenes in the movies, I tend to agree with the master’s observation, as evidenced by the utterly stupid use of hot air balloons in movies such as “Yes, Giorgio,” “The Mummy Returns,” “The Ugly Truth” and “Men Don’t Leave,” in which a woman is “cured” of depression thanks to going up, up and away.
The rousing and (frostbitten) knuckle-biting adventure “The Aernoauts” is the exception that proves the rule — but it doesn’t just feature a scene in a hot air balloon, it’s primarily SET in a hot air balloon, with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (last seen together in “The Theory of Everything,” for which Redmayne won an Oscar) teaming up for a death-defying, scientifically significant, historic quest to literally ascend higher than any man or woman had flown up to that moment.
Though filled with CGI effects creating arguably the most impressive hot-air balloon sequences ever — and yes, I’m including the aforementioned Luciano Pavarotti romantic comedy “Yes, Giorgio” — “The Aeronauts” has a distinctly old-fashioned, Saturday afternoon movie vibe.
There’s that Jules Verne-sounding title; the classic, borderline-cliched depictions of stodgy, muttonchopped, mid-19th century British gentlemen who are forever harrumphing and nay-saying anyone daring to present new ideas; Felicity Jones’ cheeky and broad but winning performance as Amelia Wren, a crowd-pleasing entertainer/balloon pilot, and Eddie Redmayne’s earnest work as the determined scientist James Glaisher, who is so buried in his calculations, he has to be reminded to look up and behold the wonders of the heavens.
One could envision Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn taking on these roles back in the 1950s.
“The Aeronauts” is a highly stylized retelling of the 1862 flights of the British scientist-explorers James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell, as detailed in the 2013 book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.” (Jack Thorne has written an entertaining screenplay, and Tom Harper’s sure-handed direction alternates between magnificent and breathtaking long shots and dramatically intense close-ups of the two main characters fighting for their lives within the confines of a boxy and not particularly sturdy balloon carriage.)
How much fiction has been added to the mix? How about this: While Glashier remains in the story, ol’ Coxwell has been supplanted by the made-up character of Amelia, a hot air balloon pilot who arrives for a well-attended launch wearing a brightly colored costume and full theatrical makeup, performs a series of flips straight out of a 21st century Olympic gymnasts’ repertoire and is accompanied by a lovable pup that she tosses from the airborne balloon. He plunges to what appears to be certain death — until his pup parachute deploys and he drifts safely to the ground.
You watch that sequence and think: Yep, they’re probably taking a little poetic license with the history here.
Oh, and to further raise the dramatic stakes, Amelia is haunted by the death of her beloved husband and hot air balloon flying partner, who sacrificed his life to save Amelia on an ill-fated excursion a few years earlier. (The basket had too much weight and was plummeting to the ground, so hubby lightened the load by jumping out.)
Much of “The Aeronauts” is set in the skies above London in 1862, as the scientist and the pilot attempt to shatter the record for highest altitude ever attained. In the process, James aims to collect data proving one can predict weather patterns, and Amelia hopes to assuage her guilt over her husband’s death.
The balloon sequences are pretty amazing, even though we shake our heads at James for neglecting to bring, you know, gloves and a heavy coat, and we marvel how the icicles perfectly augment Amelia’s curls. In one brilliantly executed if entirely illogical scene, Amelia CLIMBS TO THE TOP OF THE BALLOON at 35,000 feet in a desperate attempt at repairs, while James lies unconscious at the bottom of the basket, quickly turning into a human popsicle.
Wake up, James! You’re missing it.
Along the way, James and Amelia bicker like Bogie and Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen,” but of course come to bond with one another as the adventure goes from exciting to precarious to terrifying. We occasionally leave the balloon for flashback sequences entailing the death of Amelia’s husband, as well as some heart-tugging scenes involving James’ kindly parents (Anne Reid and Tom Courtenay), and James’ days as a college student who dreams of flying.
It doesn’t help that the pounding, overwrought score would be more suited to a movie about the creation of life than a mostly whimsical tale of brave balloonists. It’s the musical equivalent of someone constantly tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Isn’t that remarkable? Look how high up they are! Can you believe it?”
Actually, we can believe it. We’re not buying ALL the hype and hokum sugarcoating this fact-based fairy tale, but we’re happy to come along for this particular ride.