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Laramie Movie Scope: The Aeronauts

A scientist and an adventurer fly to the stars

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 5, 2019 – In the pursuit of data, few scientists have had riskier adventures than pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (1809-1903) who broke the world altitude record in a balloon in 1862. This movie is about Glaisher, and a fictional woman, Amelia Wren, a character based on the feats of daring balloon pilot Sophie Blanchard (1778–1819).

Glaisher (played by Eddie Redmayne of “The Theory of Everything”) is a founding member of the Meteorological Society, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain and later president of the Royal Meteorological Society. He is eager to study the upper atmosphere in 1862, but could not raise enough funds to build a large balloon to take him there. He approaches famed balloonist Amelia Wren (played by Felicity Jones of “The Theory of Everything”) to ask her to provide the balloon.

Wren is not eager to help Glaisher because of her emotional trauma following the death of her husband in an accident where she witnessed her husband fall from an airborne balloon. At first she declines, but Glaisher persists, and eventually, Wren agrees, but then she changes her mind again. Visiting the grave of her husband, Wren seems to receive a sign from above that she should go ahead with the expedition.

The expedition launches in a literal circus setting. Wren does cartwheels and plays to the crowd, while Glaisher seems very uncomfortable with the big crowd and all the publicity. At first, Glaisher is focused entirely on his instruments, meticulously recording altitude, humidity and temperature, but gradually he is overwhelmed by the wonder of the experience. Wren is the pilot. She flies the balloon.

Glaisher has never been in the air before. He becomes overjoyed with a visit from a large swarm of butterflies, and the experience of being inside a cloud. The balloon is buffeted about inside a thunderstorm and Glaisher wants to descend, but Wren throws weighted sacks of sand overboard, saying that safety lies above, not below. The two go on to an amazing adventure, high in the sky.

The visuals of this flight are wondrous. This film reminded me of the time I once flew in a hot air balloon, but this is different, it is a gas balloon, filled with gases lighter than air, like hydrogen and helium. It is utterly quiet in the air. Soaring silently on the wind, with the world far below, looking down on the tops of clouds. If one goes high enough, the stars are visible in broad daylight.

High in the air, dangers abound. Ice can build up on a balloon (or on an airplane) weighing it down. As the balloon gets higher, the air pressure drops, causing the balloon to expand. The balloon could burst if that pressure is not relieved. The oxygen content in the air drops, which could cause the occupants to lose consciousness. The temperature drops too, which can cause hypothermia.

This is an excellent film about the passion for discovery and adventure, as well as the wonder of flight. These aeronauts were the astronauts of their day, flying higher than anyone had ever gone before. The flight depicted in the film was made in 1862 by Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell (1819–1900). Glaisher passed out at about 28,800 feet above sea level, so it is not known how high the balloon actually rose. The balloon may have made it as high as 35,000 feet. The movie lists the height a bit higher, at 36,000 feet. At any rate, it was a world record at the time.

It is difficult to sustain a narrative like this with only two characters on screen for much of the movie, but there is plenty of action, and some flashbacks and scenes on the ground, too, to add some diversity. This expands the narrative beyond the narrow confines of a balloon basket.

This is a movie with a lot of visual magic. The narrative is aided by the acting talent and winning personalities of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. These days, with science under attack from political and religious forces, it is great to see a film that celebrates those early pioneers of science. This film rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2019 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]