The central premise of Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood in the Space Age takes off from the launching pad of half-forgotten dreams and liberties taken with factual narratives. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine Richard Linklater meeting the wealthy Netflix, and suggesting a possible origin for this movie.
‘It’s an animated NASA adventure,’ says box office-winning director school of rock. “And if, before Apollo 11, there was a clandestine trip to the moon with a precocious preteen?
But as the streamer hands him a check (in a red envelope, of course), the laid-back Texas author of Lazy, waking life, and the Before trilogy is secretly licking its chops. Because he knows how to slip in enough action-adventure sequences to ensure a good trailer, but in reality Linklater will deliver his version of Fellini Amarcord or Woody Allen Radio Days: an essentially plotless yet engaging and enriching memory of childhood imbued with warmth, grace, honesty and crystalline specificity.
Undoubtedly, the above scenario made do not happen (NASA didn’t accidentally create an undersized lunar module before Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins launched in July 1969), but you get a rogue “we’ve got them!” thrill five minutes into the film when Linklater brakes his spatial story to riff for an hour in suburban Houston in the late 1960s.
With narration by Jack Black, Apollo 10 1/2 moves at the speed of a Saturn V, reveling in the records, TV shows, fashions, technology and conversations heard from this time in history. Stanley (Milo Coy) is a Linklater replacement with several adjustments, like five older siblings and a father who works at NASA. Granted, dad pushes pencils instead of launch buttons, but he still has a sense of pride that he “beat the Russkies” on the moon trip.
As for Linklater’s 12-year production Childhood, the glory is in the details, like focusing on how kids kill time when it’s raining on a Saturday, or how to write songs for push-button phones. A recurring gag has Black’s “old Stanley” acknowledging how dangerous things look from today’s perspective. (There’s plenty of traffic games, firework banter, and driving in the back of a flatbed truck.) But there’s no sense of scolding the past, or grumbling that’s how it should be. It’s just a report.
As with anything that abounds in nostalgia, there’s bound to be melancholy – indeed, Stanley’s central concept of imagining himself as a solitary visitor to Earth’s satellite functions as a riff to detach from the cocoon comfort of the childhood before entering adolescence – but Linklater pumps the breaks before anything gets too tricky. He recognizes his white, medium-class, environment privileged most often by omission; television commentators address the political issues of the day, with Dad rolling his eyes, an older grad student whispering “straight up,” and everyone else simply remaining oblivious. Young Stan is much more interesting to babble with his Little League buddies about the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey than everything that happens on Earth.
Lest you think this film is just a parade of signifiers, keep Linklater’s work in mind. His shooting star, Lazy, is far from the blunder that its title suggests and remains a rich vein of philosophical thought. Ditto for the follow-up, waking lifewhich uses a similar animation technique here.
Apollo 10 1/2 is not as experimental in its appearance as this 2001 film (or Linklater’s second foray into the medium, 2006 A dark scanner) but the movie is hugely playful, switching “movie stocks” depending on what the family is watching (or ignoring at the drive-in) or where Stan’s imagination wanders. There’s also the treasure trove of superb needledrops, from the pop hits of The Monkees, The Archies and The Association, to the psychedelic explorations of Pink Floyd, Quicksilver Messenger Service and some digging choice tracks from Elektra Records. Nuggets collection.
Meanwhile, there’s no universal childhood experience, but the film does include a scene of Stan and his siblings encountering the abominable snowman on the Alpine sleigh ride to Astroworld that captures the essence of being still young enough to get lost in the imagination. For kids Stan’s age, they also don’t know this might be the last time, but the way Linklater captures the exhilarating freefall of this moment should put a smile on any adult’s face.