After I moved to L.A. in 1982 for the singular purpose of writing and selling screenplays (written:20, sold:2) I took a Story Structure class with the well-known script guru Robert McKee. We did in-depth studies of Casablanca and Chinatown, and I fully absorbed most everything he said for those few months. The simplest thing he said, though, may have been this: a successful script is a good story that is well-told.
It isn’t often that a movie fails so badly at storytelling that it inspires me to write about it, but that’s exactly how I feel about The Aeronauts, an Amazon Original currently available on Prime. Starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as a pair of brave balloonists in 1860s England, the trailer looked fascinating, exciting, and well-worth 140 minutes of lap time on my iPad. The filmmakers took some liberties with the true story of English meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) by having him soar into the London sky with spirited, slightly mad Amelia Wren (Jones), a fictional creation based on French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, rather than the man named Henry Tracey Coxwell he actually flew with.
I would have gladly excused this fictional license if the film were as entertaining as the trailer promised, but I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t make it through 45 minutes of this dreck. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers made a decision to ditch linear narrative and tell the story of the aeronauts in a series of flashbacks—and it flat-out ruins the movie.
The concept of 1860s balloonists is original and visual and captured this fan of air travel in an instant. Why water down the wonder of it all for no apparent reason? The story of how Glashier gets no support for his weather study ideas from the scientific community or his family until he meets the widowed Wren at a party and asks for her help is powerful enough as is, and certainly strong enough to support a linear plot that would literally soar off the screen when they finally launched into the atmosphere. Instead, the film OPENS with Wren racing to join Glashier for the balloon launch and coming across as a brash, annoying lunatic because we have a) no clue who she even is, b) who Glashier is and why he’s even flying with this woman, and c) what this event even means in the context of the time period.
It’s only after they’re airborne and flashback scenes are wedged into “reflective” moments in the big basket like extra sandbags that we learn Wren’s husband was also an aeronaut who fell from their balloon in a ghastly accident (which largely made her unbalanced), and that Glashier went through circles of hell trying to muster support for his meteorological studies). These flashbacks—which Robert McKee cautioned should never be used in a screenplay unless absolutely necessary—are predictably dead of emotion and practically irrelevant, because we already know the two of them are soon going to be flying together.
All dramatic power is summarily eviscerated from the story, and the likely reason it was written this way doesn’t even hold water. If they wanted a big balloon flight to happen in the first ten minutes of the movie to capture the viewer, they already had one they could have used: the accident involving Wren’s husband! Letting the story then unfold from Wren’s point of view (with cutaway scenes to Glashier’s travails) would have completely worked and made their 1862 launch five times more memorable.
As is, the CGI effects and dangers of the flight are beautifully staged. Once we eventually are allowed to understand Jones’ wacky character, she becomes more likeable, Redmayne is fine, and there’s even a great turn by the legendary Tom Courtenay as Glashier’s senile father. But a story that should have soared was foolishly self-grounded before it even left the earth. The most amazing thing of all about The Aeronauts is that it was ever cut loose in this misconceived condition.