About the only way to approach Tom Harper’s two-handed adventure film is as a problem in search of a solution. Though based thinly on a true story (or, more exactly, elements from several true stories), the film’s adventure component is so limited in scope that in order to remain relevant for 100 minutes a number of hurdles must be overcome, the first of which is that there are only two characters, and the second of which is that the entire adventure takes place in the basket of a hot air balloon.
Harper beats the first hurdle by making one of the characters a daredevil entertainer. The year is 1862, and James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a meteorologist, wants to prove a theory he has about predicting the weather, something his scholarly colleagues believe is impossible. In order to investigate his hypothesis he has to get high up in the atmosphere, where real weather patterns originate, and so hires a balloon. But since his university won’t fund the journey, because they think it’s all a folly, he brings on the aforementioned entertainer, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), who is experienced with balloons (Glaisher has never set foot in one) and, more significantly, can help subsidize the adventure by charging people to watch while she does her acrobatic act—complete with performing dog—as they cast off.
Nevertheless, once the movie is off the ground we’re stuck in that little basket with our two stars, who, having already worked together in that Oscar-winner about Steven Hawking, at least have cultivated a certain chemistry, but with Amelia recently widowed (her husband was her ballooning partner) and Glaisher dweebishly obsessed with his instruments and record-keeping, focusing their attention on each other is bit of a chore, so Harper has to liven the proceedings with extraneous stuff, like flashbacks that show us what the two have gone through to get to this point, and interesting pieces of natural science that justify the CGI budget, like an invasion of butterflies that are hitching a ride on an upper atmosphere current. He also injects a few suspenseful set pieces conveying how dangerous it all is, the most potent of which—passing through the first layer of rain clouds—is also the most stimulating. From there it almost seems like an anti-climax, even though the cold and diminishing oxygen level get to be real problems and Amelia is actually forced to climb the outside of the balloon to the top in order to fix a stuck valve. These moments of unease are strong while they last but fail to amount to anything memorable. Personally, I was intrigued by the notion that up until this voyage, weather forecasts were considered a fantasy, and wanted the script to address Glaisher’s breakthrough more thoroughly, but the whole experiment thing, which was the main reason for the adventure in the first place, is treated as a mildly diverting sideshow. I mean, these two people almost die for the sake of science, so why not give science its due?
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Uplink Shibuya (03-6825-5503).
The Aeronauts home page in Japanese.
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