Amazon's 'The Aeronauts' never quite gets off the ground

Posted December 5, 2019 9:21 a.m. EST

— The wide-open skies turn oddly claustrophobic in "The Aeronauts," a fact-based story about 19th-century exploration that never quite gets off the ground, despite the pairing of Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as the intrepid pioneers.

Set in 1862, the film begins in the middle, with Jones' balloon pilot Amelia Wren and James Glaisher (Redmayne) -- an advocate of the nascent science of meteorology -- airborne, hoping both to rise higher than anyone who has preceded them, while gathering information that will facilitate predicting weather patterns.

Director Tom Harper (working from a script by Jack Thorne adapted from a book) then flashes back to Glaisher seeking support for the research, which is largely met with derision from those who might assist him.

Wren, meanwhile, is carrying baggage -- and not the kind used to weight down balloons -- over the death of her husband, the circumstances of which gradually become clear. There are, in other words, a lot of genre clichés sprinkled throughout, in a movie that functions largely as a two-character piece.

The structure does have the advantage of getting into the most compelling parts of the movie faster, but that comes at the expense of developing a knowledge of these two people -- spooning out details, literally, on the fly.

Fortunately, Jones (whose resume includes the "Star Wars" prequel "Rogue One" and playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Redmayne are good company, even if the latter's bookish, awkward genius feels a little too much like a Muggle version of his New Scamander character from the "Fantastic Beasts" movies.

There are some genuinely harrowing moments as the winds and whatnot whip up, exacerbated by the fact that it's an awful long way down to the ground. Still, "The Aeronauts" never really feels genuinely magical despite its welcome celebration of scientific discovery, and the dialogue is uninspired, such as Amelia's sister telling her, "You can't just fly away from your problems."

An Amazon production, the movie is receiving a theatrical flight in advance of landing on the streaming service, which feels like the obvious venue to consume it, even if its panoramic visuals will lose something on smaller screens.

Amazon is clearly timing its push to position the movie for awards consideration, although given its modest appeal, the company would probably be wise not to put too many eggs, as it were, in that basket.

"The Aeronauts" premieres Dec. 6 in select theaters before landing on Amazon. It's rated PG-13.

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