Just in time for the holiday season, Amazon Studios has released The Aeronauts, a soaring historical adventure film about the perils faced by a Victorian scientist and a balloonist attempting to fly higher than anyone before them. Granted, the characters might be a bit thinly drawn when it comes to emotional depth, and the earth-bound first act is solid, if unremarkable, period drama. However, once the film (literally) gets off the ground, it blossoms into a gripping, thoroughly entertaining epic tale of survival at punishing altitudes. Above all, the film looks spectacular; every frame is practically a canvas, painted in vibrant, almost Disney-esque hues.
(Some spoilers below.)
The Aeronauts is a fictionalized account of a historic balloon flight by pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher. He and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, made several balloon flights to measure the temperature and humidity of the upper atmosphere between 1862 and 1866. Armed with scientific instruments and bottles of brandy, Glaisher and Coxwell set a world-altitude record, reaching an estimated 38,999 feet (11,887 meters) on September 5, 1862. They were the first men to reach the atmospheric stratosphere, and they did it without the benefit of oxygen tanks, pressure suits, or a pressurized cabin.
During the flight, the men released pigeons at various altitudes to see how well they flew, recalling that those released above the three-mile mark "dropped like a stone." They would have continued rising and likely died because the valving rope Coxwell needed to manipulate to begin their descent got tangled up with the balloon net. Coxwell had to climb out of the basket and up into the rigging to release the valve with his teeth—his hands were badly frostbitten—in order to begin their descent. By then, Glaisher had passed out. Eventually, the men landed safely (if a bit roughly) about 20 miles from their original launch point.
The film version recreates many of those elements, but while Glaisher is a primary character (played by Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything) in The Aeronauts, writer/director Tom Harper opted to replace Coxwell with a fictional female character, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones, also of The Theory of Everything). It opens with a frustrated Glaisher trying in vain to convince his scientific colleagues of the potential of ballooning to enable better study of Earth's atmosphere, resulting in more accurate weather prediction. Meanwhile, a widowed Amelia is facing pressure from her mother and sister to remarry and leave her ballooning adventures with her late husband behind her. When Glaisher offers Amelia a job piloting a balloon higher than anyone has attempted before, she is initially reluctant, but then accepts. They end up facing far more peril than they bargained for.
Up, up, and away
Harper wanted his sky-borne scenes to be as authentic as possible. These were by far the most challenging aspect of the production, since he wanted to shoot his actors in an actual balloon at 2,000 feet. According to co-producer Todd Lieberman, that involved finding someone willing and able to build an 80-foot helium-filled (as opposed to a hot air) balloon—and someone willing and able to fly it. A company called Flying Pictures, headed by Colin Prescot, obliged. Prescot also brought renowned Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand aboard to pilot the balloon. (Lindstrand famously made a series of transoceanic hot-air balloon flights in partnership with Sir Richard Branson.)
"I think a balloon of this kind hadn't been built in over four decades, and this might be the first replica of a period balloon of that era ever built," said Lieberman.