This review of “Apollo 10 1/2” was first published on March 13, after its screening at SXSW.
Richard Linklater digs into his own salad days for “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood,” an animated feature that fondly recalls the NASA moment in a way that’s more reminiscent of “Amarcord” or “Crooklyn” than of “First Man.”
As a kid who was born in 1960 and grew up in the suburbs of Houston, like the film’s young hero, Linklater had a front-row seat to the race to the moon. In this delightfully evocative exercise in nostalgia, he captures the way that children will remember historic events in the context of what else was on TV, which siblings got to sit on the couch, and how your favorite song made you feel.
The story here is ostensibly about young Stan (voiced by Milo Coy), a schoolboy recruited by NASA (because of his exemplary science projects and a three-year record earning the Presidential Fitness Challenge certificate) to go to the moon before Neil Armstrong to test out a capsule that has accidentally been made too small for adult astronauts. But no sooner does Stan upchuck during his first G-force simulation than adult Stan (a droll Jack Black) hijacks the narration and takes a long detour into the sights and sounds and memories of growing up as a youngest child in late-’60s suburbia.
This charming walk down memory lane — which includes everything from “Dark Shadows” to grandparents who remember the Depression to riding to the beach on the back of pick-up trucks and using gasoline-soaked rags to wipe the tar off your feet — is the heart of “Apollo 10 1/2,” and it’s an exhilarating, Proustian wave of reminiscences. Unlike the “memberberries” school of nostalgia that can reduce itself to “I had that lunch box!” Linklater gets granular and specific (and thus universal) about his memories and his perceptions of the world at that time.
(As a youngest child of a large family myself, I can attest to the details Linklater recalls here, from early exposure to pop music via your older sister’s 45 RPM records to squeezing into the tiniest and least comfortable parts of a station wagon on group outings.)
There’s no dark underbelly to Linklater’s recollections — this isn’t “Fanny and Alexander” or the comics of Lynda Barry, where children vacillate between heartbreak and wonder — but the sunny technological optimism of the late-’60s is inevitably tinged with regret and irony as we understand where the world went from there. The future, as they say, ain’t what it used to be, and if nostalgia, as Don Draper famously noted on “Mad Men,” is “the pain from an old wound,” audiences are left to bring that pain to the film and not vice versa.
“Apollo 10 1/2” isn’t viewed entirely through rose-colored glasses, of course. Adult Stan recalls that corporal punishment was still benignly (but painfully) practiced by both teachers and parents, and there is acknowledgment that even at the height of the space race, many Americans viewed it as a waste of federal funds (when many cities were in impoverished decay) and that landing on the moon was in many ways a “triumph of the squares.” (Vietnam, riots, and campus unrest were happening, yes, but when you’re nine, that’s just something on television.)
Once again working with animation director Tommy Pallotta, his collaborator on previous animated features “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” Linklater achieves a warmer and literally fuzzier effect. As opposed to relying entirely on motion-capture and rotoscoping, Linklater and Pallotta worked together to achieve a more 2D look to the animation, which not only fits the film’s themes about the soft focus of memory but also allows the integration of rotoscoped TV footage (encompassing everything from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to Walter Cronkite’s Apollo 11 coverage) in a way that makes it look like part of, but also separate from, the world of Stan and his family.
When Linklater burst onto the scene in 1991, his film “Slacker” was held up alongside Douglas Coupland’s novel “Generation X” as being definitive chronicles of the post-Boomers as they came of age. (Ironically, both Linklater and Coupland were born in the early 1960s, making them de facto Baby Boomers themselves.) Over the course of a rich and varied career, Linklater has demonstrated that he has many stories to tell, from a variety of angles.
Still, this dewy recollection of life in suburban Houston — at a time when all the buildings (including the Astrodome) were shiny and new, and the imminent moon landing seemed to signal infinite possibilities for space travel and technology — is an essential Generation X text, a reverie of childhood before Watergate, when kids drank Tang, adults smoked and the future spelled opportunity instead of eventual apocalypse.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” premieres on Netflix April 1.