Apollo 10½ A Space Age Childhood Movie Review: Richard Linklater takes us on a gleeful 60s nostalgia
The filmmaker returns to animation for another one of his nostalgia-inducing, unconventionally narrated films that are more interested in reliving an experience
It's always a cause for celebration whenever Richard Linklater makes a deeply personal film that combines details from his memories with a fantastical narrative that feels so real. In Before Sunrise, he drew from his memory of a chance meeting with a woman in his past to produce an entire film that's, essentially, a long conversation between his alter ego, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and Celine (Julie Delpy), the woman with whom he shares intense chemistry. In Boyhood, Linklater went back to his childhood to create a bold experiment -- a film made little by little over a decade, with the actor growing up throughout the film. The filmmaker does something similar with his latest Netflix feature, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood and the result should delight many hardcore Linklater fans. (I'll stick with Apollo 10 ½ for the remainder of this review.)
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell
Streaming on: Netflix
Apollo 10 ½ sees Linklater returning to a territory -- animation -- he last explored in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. This time, though, he opts for traditional 2D to revisit images from American history and his suburban upbringing. The setting? The 1960s, when technological advancement was at its zenith. The time when Americans were trying so hard to beat the Russians in the space race. The time of Vietnam, anti-war protests, and the Kennedy assassination. However, these events don't have much bearing on the kids watching them on the news. It's the parents that are more affected. In Linklater's imagination, it was a glorious time; after seeing the film, I became so envious of anyone who grew up during that time and dreamt of going to space.
Incidentally, Linklater grew up in Houston, close to the NASA base, and the science/science fiction fan in me was curious to see every little detail that he experienced. I often wonder how it would've been live at a time when Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Rod Serling's seminal television series The Twilight Zone (1959-1963) existed. (When Linklater includes these events in two separate animated scenes, I had a big grin.)
The story? Well, who looks for one in a Linklater film? It has, though, a thin one at that, like in most of his unconventionally narrated films that are more interested in reliving an experience than telling a Point A to Point Z story. Apollo 10 ½ is Linklater's idea of a 'man on a mission' story. Only here, the 'man' happens to be a fourth-grader, Stan (Milo Coy), recruited by two NASA men to be part of an experiment involving a small lunar module that can only fit someone of Stan's size. (Mr Shazam! Zachary Levi is one of the men.) They tell Stan they happened to make the module small "accidentally". "Why don't you send a chimpanzee?" asks the boy. "Because you speak more actual words of the English language," they answer. The boy immediately agrees. Now that he did, he is not supposed to tell anyone about it, including his parents. Top secret. Naturally.
Stan's trip to the moon before the history-creating Apollo 11 mission is the film's fantasy part. When he enrols at a simulation and training facility, everyone else assumes he is at summer camp. Before the actual mission, Linklater takes his own sweet time to give us a sense of Stan's vibrant childhood, which, I heard, is close to Linklater's own. A relatively less hyper Jack Black voices the adult version of Stan.
Apollo 10 ½ might make one long for a smartphone-free time -- when people managed to find a lot of outdoor activities that took care of their mental and physical well-being. Some of the film's most amusing moments revolve around Stan's school days and the time spent with his large family. He is one of six kids, all with varying personalities. One scene has Stan's miserly father giving a funny monologue about what rednecks and regular people would do with a finished beer can. Another has Stan's mother admonishing his grandmother for spewing wild conspiracy theories and scaring the kids. Then there is the fight over the television, the mother stockpiling food for an entire week in the refrigerator, the elder sister trying to find deeper meanings in song lyrics (at one point, she remarks that a poetic phrase is a euphemism for LSD). Suffice to say that Apollo 10 ½ is replete with all the little trademark Linklater moments. We even get a scene with a pinball machine. (Remember the Jesse-Celine conversation around a pinball machine in Before Sunrise?)
Like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson did recently, Linklater packs the screen with plenty of colourful details evoking the period, beginning with the title credits emulating the design of the TV shows from the 60s. Linklater even introduces us to all the popular shows of the time and the prolific bands that topped the charts. Some details appear as cards bordering the screen, while others as 'thought' clouds. One gets tempted to pause these moments, to reflect on the greatness of it all.
The whole thing registers the cumulative effect of browsing through a comic book or a kid's scrapbook or colouring book while listening to vintage record collections. (As always, Linklater displays his exquisite music taste here.) The latter only adds to the beauty. News clippings, documentaries and news footage... it's all coated with an animation veneer. The amalgam of traditional 2D and a little bit of 3D and rotoscope ensure a memorably surreal experience. It's an ultimate, immersive trip, just like the promises the movies and music made back then.