Like the upper atmosphere through which its heroes soar, “The Aeronauts” is beautiful and thin. It’s an excuse of a movie: an excuse for Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones to have a reunion after the Oscar-feted “The Theory of Everything” (2014), an excuse for audiences to goggle in awe at the magnificence of man’s ascension into the sky, and an excuse for parents to take their children to a grand and perilous adventure in which the girls get as much to do as the boys, if not more. That’s three excuses, any one of which should be good enough to get you to the theater.
If nothing else, they’ll be showing “The Aeronauts” at every TV weatherperson’s convention for years to come, because the movie’s about the first meteorologist, James Glaisher (Redmayne), who in September 1862 broke the world record for altitude by riding a hot-air balloon to over 35,000 feet.
Glaisher was a scientist and a member of the Royal Society, mocked by his fellow boffins for claiming that with the right data he could predict the weather. “I want to rewrite the rules of the air,” James says, with the adorably deranged assurance that only Eddie Redmayne is capable of pulling off without straining a muscle.
Glaisher is a numbers wonk; he needs a balloon pilot. Enter Amelia Wren (Jones), whose expertise includes dozens of flights with her husband Pierre (Vincent Perez) and whose trauma involves recovering from his death by falling from the sky two years earlier. Amelia knows the value of a good show, though, and when “The Aeronauts” opens, she is delighting the crowd and mortifying Glaisher with acrobatic stunts, verbal ballyhoo, and a bit with a dog.
The screenplay by Jack Thorne and director Tom Harper — very loosely based on the 2013 book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air,” by Richard Holmes — uses the 1862 flight as the central narrative, dipping back in time to observe first James’s struggles, then Amelia’s, then theirs together as they push uphill against hidebound relatives and a disbelieving society. Those scenes are enjoyable and obvious, with grandiloquent furnishings and italicized dialogue intent on making its points. Amelia’s strait-laced sister (Phoebe Fox): “You can’t just fly away from your problems!” Amelia: “Up there I’ve found the greatest happiness!” Sister: ”He was the happiness, not the damn balloon!”
Well, the Brits know how to bat this stuff over the net better than anyone, and you put up with the earthbound scenes to get back to the balloon, as Glaisher and Wren bicker and coo up and up and up, through pounding thunderstorms, across immense continents of clouds, and into the frigid reaches where the stars poke through. It’s all CGI smoke and mirrors, but the illusion holds; at times, you grip your seat for fear of falling out and down. An Amazon Studios film, “The Aeronauts” was originally supposed to hit IMAX screens ahead of a traditional theatrical run, and some scenes were shot for that format. The plan was scotched, and you now have a few weeks to see the movie on the big screen before it arrives on Amazon, Dec. 20.
I would advise you do so, especially if you’re thinking about bringing the kids, especially if they’re 8 or older and susceptible to ripping yarns with a scientific angle. As James and Amelia rise, the tone moves slowly from acrimony to awe to shared confidences and then, alarmingly, into genuine danger as the oxygen runs out, hypoxia kicks in, and the falling temperatures freeze the balloon and threaten frostbite. “The Aeronauts” flirts with romance but only in passing; it’s really a near-disaster movie in which two mismatched souls come through with the purified respect of fellow survivors. It matters, too, that the film’s most grueling, gasp-inducing derring-do is derring-done by Amelia.
It’s with deep regret, then, that I have to report that she never existed — that James Glaisher made his 1862 balloon trip with a fellow aeronaut, Henry Tracey Coxwell, who has been written out of this movie (the Royal Society is not amused) while Amelia Wren, a composite of several genuine lady balloonists (France’s Sophie Blanchard, mostly), has been written in.
You feel the filmmakers straining to sew all this invention together into something that will fly, with the two lead actors using their considerable powers to throw out every bit of ballast and keep the movie aloft. That’s why the best audiences for this thrilling confabulation may be younger ones: They’ll feel their minds expand with inspiration and be less inclined to deflate back to earth afterward. Somebody did something amazing back in 1862; “The Aeronauts” commemorates it with artifice, enthusiasm, and a smattering of the truth.
Directed by Tom Harper. Written by Harper and Jack Thorne. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 100 minutes. PG-13 (some peril, thematic elements)