Film Review – Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood ￼￼
Writer/director Richard Linklater’s entire career has been marked by his obsession with the passing of time and how it feeds into our nostalgia. Whether it be nostalgia for high school (Dazed and Confused, 1993), college (Everybody Wants Some!!, 2016), romance (The Before Trilogy) or childhood itself (Boyhood, 2014), Linklater has been fascinated with how our views of the world change as we grow up. His latest effort, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (2022) might be his most blatant example. This animated tale covers what was surely Linklater’s life in Houston, Texas – how his adolescence was partly defined by the mid-20th century “Space Race,” and the moon landing on July 20th, 1969.
The first thing we notice is the animation style. Linklater utilizes the same rotoscope approach he used in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) to create a vibrant, lifelike aesthetic. While his previous trips into animation allowed room to explore fantastical elements, there is something distinctly grounded here. Characters move as real-world people would. Homes, cars, and buildings are all fashioned authentically. This is surprising, given that the story is about a boy who imagines himself as an astronaut. But this doesn’t operate as science-fiction or fantasy – it plays more as a coming-of-age tale of Linklater himself.
He is represented by a kid named Stan (Milo Coy). Stan lives in a middle-class suburb with his father (Bill Wise), mother (Lee Eddy) and five siblings. What’s unique about Stan’s neighborhood is that they are located near NASA. Many of the kids around the block have parents who work there, including Stan’s dad. Outside of the occasional jet zooming by, Stan’s life seems fairly normal. That is, until two NASA agents (Zachary Levi, Glen Powell) show up and recruit Stan for a top-secret mission: to be the first person to land on the moon.
You may be thinking that this premise is ludicrous – and it is. Of course, we all know who really stepped foot on the moon first. Linklater makes it clear that the scenario is coming from the imagination of a kid. Space exploration and technological advancements gave rise to a feeling of possibility and adventure. It would only make sense that a kid would dream about being right next to Neil Armstrong as he took that fateful step. Interestingly, the film isn’t so much about the moon landing as it is the time and culture that surrounded it. Jack Black provides narration as a grown-up Stan. Before we even get to the moon, he stops the plot in midstride to discuss everything he remembers about the era.
The narrative takes on an episodic structure, as grownup Stan describes what life was like back then. Some of the more interesting bits include details about his family – how his dad was fanatical about saving money, or how his mom stretched leftovers to last a whole week. He talks about his love of old television shows, and how his siblings would fight over what to watch. Some of his most fond memories involves trips to the movie theater. Seeing old sci-fi and monster movies on the big screen was, in all likelihood, the thing that drove Linklater to be a filmmaker himself. We learn about Stan’s friends, what school was like, and how the threat of nuclear annihilation was just a thing they dealt with on a day-to-day basis. There’s a “hang out” quality to Stan’s descriptions, and Black’s cool, laid-back vocal delivery grooves along with the flow.
Although the moon landing lent to a feeling of optimism in America and around the world, Linklater does not forget to highlight some of the darker aspects of the time. There’s the Vietnam War, hanging above all like a dark cloud, along with the big social changes of the Civil Rights Movement. The feeling of goodwill for the space race is accompanied with the cynicism over its funding. People rightfully questioned why the government would spend so much many to land on the moon while countless people need help finding food and shelter. These parts are depicted through TV news broadcasts. The rising counterculture is seen through the periphery. One of the funnier scenes involves the family venturing out to a college campus, looking around and pointing out all the hippies they come across.
Richard Linklater clearly loved his childhood, yet his fondness maybe a bit too nostalgic. We never really learn more about other characters outside of what Stan tells us – we don’t understand their motivations, fears, hopes, or dreams. They all kind of exist within Stan’s own spectrum. His sisters loved listening to The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and The Monkees because of course they do. The teachers and principle at school would take a paddle to misbehaving students because what other options were there? Going to Astroworld was as big – or bigger – than going to Disneyland. The moon landing was a family event, and all the other problems of society were regulated to the TV or radio. It could be argued that this is how every kid sees things, which only reminds us of all the growing up they have left to do.
Can a movie be too personal? For as enjoyable as Linklater makes Apollo 10½, this maybe a case where a movie will be most enjoyed by those who shared in his experience. I liked it for it what it was, but after the credits rolled, I found myself strangely unaffected.