Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, April 1.
“Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood” introduces itself as a fantastical adventure about a Houston fourth-grader who’s plucked out of school for a confidential NASA mission in the spring of 1969 (those wacky scientists accidentally built the lunar module too small for an adult), but Richard Linklater’s first animated feature since “A Scanner Darkly” isn’t really a story about a kid who secretly paved the way for Neil Armstrong, or even a story about a kid who had any special interest in the stars above. In fact, this semi-autobiographical sketch isn’t really a story at all so much as a sweetly effervescent string of Kodachrome memories from the filmmaker’s own childhood — the childhood of someone who was born in a place without any sense of yesterday, and came of age at a time that was obsessed with tomorrow.
“Apollo 10 ½” is less compelled by going to the Moon than by remembering what it was like to grow up in its shadow, and the nature of that mission clicks into place once you realize that Jack Black’s non-stop “Wonder Years”-esque narration isn’t just table-setting for the movie to come, but actually the whole damn meal. Linklater eventually doubles back to his young avatar’s day-dreamed trip to the stars, but only after more than 45 minutes of pointillistic details about what it was like for a suburban white kid named Stan to be 10-and-a-half at a time when it felt like the world was spinning forward even faster than he was.
Teenagers were dying in Vietnam. Teachers were still instructing kids on how to duck-and-cover under their desks in case of nuclear emergency. Plessy v. Ferguson was a thing of the past, but the majority of schools had only been formally desegregated the previous year, and the continued disenfranchisement of Black Americans was another of the many things from which Kennedy hoped the space race might be a spectacular distraction. For a middle-class white kid in a Houston suburb populated almost entirely with NASA employees, it worked like a charm.
The youngest son of a NASA paper-pusher who he resents for not having a cooler job, Stanley (Milo Coy embodies the tweenage version of Black’s narrator) can’t help but feel like science-fiction is coming to life everywhere he looks. His local baseball team is called the Astros, his favorite movie is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the ice cream shop down the street has somehow developed the technology to serve a mind-boggling 31 flavors. Sure, a few dissonant vestiges of the old world still keep Stanley earthbound — Will Robinson never had to deal with corporal punishment when his family was lost in space — but the line between current events and science-fiction has blurred to the point that every new happiness is tinged with the wonder of discovery. Even the Frito pies he snacks on with his friends seem like they’re from the future, somehow.
But the first summer that Stanley’s house has a touch tone telephone is also the last summer that a trip to Astroworld feels like a genuine adventure. It’s the last summer that “Dark Shadows” feels like appointment viewing, and the last summer when Stanley will still be young enough to fall asleep during the car ride home from a family outing and then magically wake up in his bed the next morning. Of course, he doesn’t know any of that yet — his vision of tomorrow is as blinkered as that of his government, in some respects — but you can occasionally hear a sharp twinge of nostalgia in Black’s narration, as Linklater’s plotless (yet rocket-paced) evocation of his halcyon days taps into that vertiginous feeling when the future you always imagined starts to become a past you can only remember.
Linklater’s bittersweet collage might be glued together from the shreds of semi-related memories, but that emphasis on bite-sized moments in time (many of them specific, others more representational) has the satisfyingly counterintuitive effect of slurring them all together into something unreal. As wonderfully recalled as “Apollo 10 ½” is, Black’s narration, Stanley’s eventual trip to the Moon, and the dreamlike animation that illustrates it in the same vivid style as real life are unified by an idea that Linklater has carried with him since he first picked up a movie camera: To remember the past is to re-imagine it as well.
Building from the rotoscope technique he first explored in “Waking Life” — and complementing its minimal performance capture elements with layers of color as warm and lush as the memories they bring back to life — Linklater vividly depicts the 1960s not as they were, but as they still are in his mind. Whether Stanley is watching Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash sing a duet on “The Dick Cavett Show” (part of a killer soundtrack that ranges from “Head”-era Monkees to pre-MAGA Ted Nugent) or imagining himself reading “Mad Magazine” in the cockpit of a NASA space shuttle, every thought that’s threaded through the projector behind his eyes is sewn together in the soft illusion of memory.
It’s an approach that allows “Apollo 10 ½” to recreate places that no longer exist, fulfill Stanley’s fantasies of floating among the stars, and render all of its scenes as equal on screen as they are in Linklater’s memory. It’s also an approach that allows this featherlight time capsule to feel like it’s floating in space without capitulating to the carefree (or ahistorical) myopia of a “good old days” throwback. If Stanley’s childhood is more beautiful in hindsight than it was at the time, that’s only because of how selectively it’s been remembered. As one of his parents puts it when their son — exhausted from a long summer day of still being a kid — passes out before he can watch a certain program he wanted to watch on TV: “You know how memory works. Even if he was asleep, he’ll someday swear he saw it all.”
“Apollo 10 1/2” premiered at SXSW 2022. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, April 1.