Review: Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

Director: Richard Linklater

Stars: Glen Powell, Jack Black, Milo Coy

Folding in his combined interests in nostalgia, coming-of-age tales and the passage of time, Richard Linklater’s latest deployment of rotoscope technology arrives on Netflix as a winsome blue-skied What If. His previous film outings that have utilised rotoscoping – Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly – used the tool to enhance a wandering dream and a sci-fi thinkpiece respectively. Apollo 10½  sits comfortably in the mid-portion of a Venn diagram between those points. It’s playful, family friendly, and cutely retro.

It’s 1969. Space fever has gripped the USA. School-age Houston jock and math-whizz Stan (Milo Coy) is headhunted by NASA to pilot a lunar module that’s been built slightly too small thanks to an engineering snafu. It’s a fun fantasy idea – a theme park daydream, it is revealed – and Linklater uses it to springboard his flick-book turned photo album; colourful, handsome images brimming with a love of the era, backed with a pop soundtrack of late ’60s staples (Pink Floyd, Donovan etc).

The tale is narrated by Stan’s older self (Jack Black), imbuing the piece with a further sense of reverent recollection. Thus, Apollo 10½ shares the same sense of fondness found in Linklater’s more raucous trips down memory lane; Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, while the pop soundtrack and sense of young man’s wonder connects spiritually to Boyhood.

While the latter half of the story blends in Stan’s imagined trip to space, the scene-setting first half itemises – in detail – fondly remembered aspects of late ’60s living; everything from paper-bag garbage disposal and Ouija boards to Stan’s own grandparents, caught in the mindset of a more distant time period. Domesticity is rendered handsomely and warmly, akin to the peripheral details that cosied up PTA’s recent joy Licorice Pizza or even the Coens’ A Serious Man. Here though they are front and centre as opposed to dressing. They are, to a significant degree, the essence of the piece.

Written by Linklater himself, it belies a barely concealed autobiography; perhaps the most prominent of his career so far. One understands that it is Linklater himself reminiscing and his enthusiasm is infectious. Certainly enough to dispel the “ok, boomer” vibe this has a tendency to give off. He catalogues the variety of the era’s sci-fi TV shows, the wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey along with B-movie triple bills at the multiplex. And how kids would also, y’know, go outside and play.

All of this is in service of placing NASA’s cultural cache in context. The enterprise was held in a different kind of regard than it is today, and Apollo 10½ eulogises how this has changed over the years. Linklater seems to see NASA as a fulcrum for a sense of optimism long since discarded, and his film can be seen as a requiem for the lost innocence of America (Vietnam is referenced, but as an oblique and distant puzzle, disconnected from the lives of children). As such Apollo 10½ may play well across political borders. Linklater’s trademark liberal bent is present and correct in the wry detailing, but the film’s codification of the past as a halcyon time of greater prosperity is likely to chime well with Republican viewers.

Linklater’s rose-tinted truisms are so well-drawn that the leap into fantasy in the second half feels ever-so-slightly false by comparison, and the opening promise becomes relatively misleading. But for the most part it works. Credit to Linklater; he’s done his research. As much as the writers of First Man or Proxima at any rate. And the sense of fun remains at a consistent peak. Indeed if there’s an unsung MVP to Apollo 10½ its editor Sandra Adair. One might argue that this movie is one big montage. The material is condensed but our journey through it is relatively effortless.

After an exceedingly prolific spell up until the mid ’10s, Linklater cooled off for UK viewers. Last Flag Flying was scarcely seen, while the release of Where’d You Go Bernadette? was – ironically – shelved entirely. Thus Apollo 10½ feels like a belated return as opposed to a continuation of the director’s pacey turnaround. It’s no doubt that Linklater has other time-spanning projects on the burner. Still, it’s good to have his particularly breezy worldview back on our screens. A nostalgic oeuvre all of it’s own.

7 of 10

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