Richard Linklater Takes a Powerful Nostalgia Trip in His New Animation, 'Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Richard Linklater Takes a Powerful Nostalgia Trip in His New Animation, 'Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood'

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SPACE CADET A 10-year-old Texan goes to the moon — or does he? — in Linklater's powerfully nostalgic animated odyssey. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Of Netflix
  • SPACE CADET A 10-year-old Texan goes to the moon — or does he? — in Linklater's powerfully nostalgic animated odyssey.

We live in a strange time, when the latest feature from an acclaimed director such as Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused) can drop on a streaming service without much fanfare. Released on Netflix on April 1, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is Linklater's latest experiment with animated narratives, combining the techniques of rotoscoping (which he used in two previous films) and 2D and 3D animation.

With its 10-year-old protagonist, is this a movie for kids? Adults? Anyone who wants to geek out on the space program? I investigated.

The deal

The year is 1969, America is on the verge of the moon launch and young Stanley (Milo Coy) feels like he's at the center of it all. He and his five older siblings live in Houston, where their dad works at NASA. Reminders of the space race are everywhere — in science classes, backyard rocketry experiments, playgrounds, pop culture. Caught at a cultural inflection point, Stan is simultaneously looking forward to a bright future (think "The Jetsons") and dreading a dire one (think Planet of the Apes).

Mostly, though, he's just enjoying being a kid — until two men in black suits nab him from school and bring him to NASA for an interview. Turns out, they built their lunar module too small and need a pint-size astronaut.

Stan undergoes grueling training and embarks on a top secret mission: Apollo 10 1/2. The world will never know that a kid was actually the first to walk on the moon — at least not until the adult Stan (voiced by Jack Black) tells us all about it.

Will you like it?

So, wait, you may still be asking, what is this movie? A kid-centric fantasy about going to space, or the kind of shaggy meditation on coming of age that we expect from Linklater?

The answer arrives pretty quickly: While kids may or may not enjoy the movie, it isn't primarily for them. Having set up the tantalizing scenario of young Stan's mission, our narrator offers to supply a bit of context. He proceeds to spend nearly half of the film's run time on a deep dive into late-'60s Americana and the idiosyncrasies of Stan's large family.

For viewers who expect something more in the Disney or DreamWorks Animation vein, this tangent could be a deal breaker. But what a tangent it is! Apollo 10 1/2 is both a loving, clearly autobiographical portrait of one boy's life and a potent nostalgia trip for younger boomers and older members of Generation X. The movie is a treasure trove of film and TV clips, music, found footage — Linklater put out an open call for home movies of the era — and pop culture ephemera.

The credits sequence of "The Twilight Zone," the now-defunct amusement park AstroWorld, the rocket ship graphics on the back of a box of Frosted Flakes — the film re-creates them all with such care that one wants to pause and appreciate each vignette. The semirealistic animation style recalls vintage Saturday morning cartoons but with a dreamy wooziness around the edges and a heavy dollop of golden light.

In a lesser filmmaker's hands, this level of nostalgia might have become insufferable. But the saving grace of Apollo 10 1/2 is that Linklater doesn't overlook the era's dark side. "Life was cheaper," the adult Stan notes, after blithely enumerating the ways in which kids were routinely endangered in 1969: corporal punishment, truck-bed rides, DDT, ruthless games of Red Rover.

Children knew all about the Vietnam War and the recent assassinations of beloved leaders, but they shrugged off such historical traumas, Stan tells us, as examples of inscrutable adult behavior. White and securely middle class, Stan doesn't represent his entire generation. Still, Linklater captures something here about how history shapes one's sense of the world. You can see a direct line from Stan's equanimity to the amiable disaffection of the characters in the director's 1990 breakthrough Slacker.

Linklater told Vulture that he wanted the animation of Apollo 10 1/2 to evoke "the creative space in your brain where fantasies mingle with memories." Placing us in that space is crucial not just to the movie's mood but to its structure. When we finally return from the cultural deep dive to the space adventure, it becomes clear that the Apollo 10 1/2 mission exists solely in Stan's imagination.

This development isn't a letdown, however. By dreaming himself into history and placing himself in Neil Armstrong's footprints, Stan simply does what children, prophets and artists have been doing since time immemorial: He reaches for the stars.

If you like this, try...

First Man (2018; fuboTV, DirecTV, rentable): Damien Chazelle's moon landing tale offers a very different take from Linklater's. Told from the stoic perspective of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), it's tense, somber and occasionally terrifying.

The Vast of Night (2019; Amazon Prime Video): Set in the 1950s, Andrew Patterson's homage to the aesthetic of "The Twilight Zone" captures an earlier phase of the wonder and terror of the space age. ("The Twilight Zone" itself currently streams on Paramount+.)

A Scanner DarklY (2006; Kanopy, rentable): Linklater embarked on his animation experiments with Waking Life (2001; Cinemax, rentable) and continued them in this adaptation of Philip K. Dick's classic paranoid dystopian novel.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood"