Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood was reviewed out of the SXSW Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will debut on Netflix on April 1.
After the ’70s-set high school coming-of-age movie Dazed and Confused and the ’80s college throwback Everybody Wants Some, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood feels like the retroactive completion of a trilogy. Few American directors are as adept at the cinematic nostalgia trip, and with his latest — set in the Houston suburbs in the 1960s — he also completes a trilogy of films made with gorgeous rotoscope animation (after Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). A delightful, mellow piece that pulls from memories of the moon landing, it tells of a young boy named Stanley (Milo Coy) who also imagines himself as a secret astronaut enlisted to assist NASA, at a time when anything seemed possible. Despite feeling occasionally scattered, it manages to achieve what all the best Linklater films set out to, rooting you in a specific time, place, and feeling.
Narrated by Jack Black, who voices Stanley as an adult, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood begins with the absurd conscription of the young boy by a pair of NASA scientists voiced by (and closely resembling) Glen Powell and Zachary Levi, who were shot in live-action before being animated over. Stanley’s grades aren’t altogether terrible, and the reason he’s chosen — or so he imagines, and narrates to us as fact — is that one of the Apollo modules was built a little too small by accident, and needs to be operated by a child. It’s a marvelously silly premise played completely straight, though before it goes too far, it quickly switches gears in familiar, freeze-frame-and-flashback fashion, immersing us in Stanley’s daily life alongside his housewife mother (Lee Eddy), his low-level NASA employee father (Bill Wise), and his five older siblings.
While this seems like a brief detour at first, it turns out to take up most of the runtime, rendering the initial promise of a goofy Apollo 11 retelling somewhat unfulfilled. However, it rarely fails to be entertaining, even if its chronicle of life in the late ’60s ends up meandering more than necessary. Before it gets to that stage, it fills the screen with wonderful little details, both from Stanley’s childhood and the changing world around him, of which he’s ignorant as an 8 or 9 year old, but which his adult self contextualizes as a near-omniscient commentator from a present vantage. Stories of war, the space race, and social upheaval appear frequently, with real photographs and footage rotoscoped similarly to the cast, but presented in starker hues, with more grey tones and more contrast, with even the scratches and flaws of celluloid news reels animated over, as if the childlike sheen of Stanley’s memories can only add so much sugar to the medicine.
However, during scenes of Stanley in school, or at home with his brothers and sisters, or playing in the streets with neighborhood children, the animation remains vivid, as if these memories were being recalled in the form of a comic book, or a sci-fi cartoon from the era. Television plays a big part in Stanley’s recollections, both as a new technology that formed a window to the world, and as a set of sci-fi and fantasy shows that reflected the hopes and anxieties of the space age (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and so on).
The soundtrack choices — a mix of Pink Floyd and other era-appropriate sounds with synth experiments — even seem to emanate from the distinct starting point that is The Twilight Zone theme, though not the original version of the track, but rather “Out of Limits” by The Marketts, which borrowed the show’s four-note riff and turned it into a piece of Surf Rock. The song appears and reappears, evoking nostalgia for the era’s breezy tunes while also situating the story distinctly in ’60s genre fiction (Stanley even watches 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes). It was an era of enormous change, and the Houston-native Linklater — who grew up mere miles from NASA Mission Control — captures major global transitions in the story’s margins. One of Stanley’s older sisters, for instance, is the only one in the family who pays attention to the Civil Rights movement; Stanley, as a child, only seems peripherally aware of these events, and only understands their monumental impact as an adult, so the film walks a playful line between his childhood naiveté, and the knowledge that we (and Linklater, and adult Stanley) now possess. As the story’s narrator, Black sheds most of his comedic affectations, and opts instead for a straightforward and knowing wistfulness, peppered with just enough irony to make this balance land.
Where the film feels most intimate is in its re-creation of Stanley and his family’s routine, between cheaply cobbled together meals (which feel as though they were pulled from Linklater’s childhood) and minor exchanges that feel specific to each character. Few interactions feel meaningful or dramatic in any lasting sense, but they each harbor recognizable subtleties through movement and expressions, which the real actors appear to have crafted with sublime detail. However, this specific trip down memory lane can only hold so much meaning for anyone outside its confines. The details are evocative of a life lived, but beyond a point, that’s all they are. They’re just details. While they feel sentimental and honest, they aren’t anchored to any unifying plot or theme or perspective beyond their own appearance on screen.
Apollo 10 ½ combines Linklater’s Texas nostalgia with his love of rotoscope animation.
Apollo 10 ½ does, eventually, circle back to its initial premise, of a boy strangely recruited to man a mission to the moon, though it returns with much more gravity, especially as it overlaps with the real Apollo 11 launch as seen on TV by Stanley’s family. Linklater, in these scenes, weaves together childhood fantasy and life-changing historical events as if they were one and the same — as if to capture the wonder of what it felt like to be alive, especially as a child, for one of humanity’s greatest achievements, justifiably blurring the line between dreams and reality.
Author: Alex Stedman. [Source Link (Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood Review), IGN All]