Richard Linklater’s ode to nostalgia is always very colourful, very sparkling and light. Unlike his Before trilogy dealing with depth and thoughtful treatises on romance, love, and growing up, his coming-of-age films like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some are both microcosmic explorations of a decade in a specific environment and, above all, fun. The Linklater that comes closest to merging these two sides of his oeuvre is in 2014’s Boyhood, arguably his magnum opus shot over 12 years, and though it gets lost in the machinations of following the same cast for 12 years old, he manages to bring out the fun as well as elegiac nature of growing up very effectively.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” feels much more in the vein of Dazed and Confused than, say, “Boyhood.” It’s also a children’s movie, where the machinations of the premise are as ridiculous and inexplicable as they sound. NASA agents talk to our teenage protagonist, Stan, and offer him to be their guinea pig on an unauthorized mission to test the lunar lander before Apollo 11’s fateful sojourn on the moon. Their reasoning: they created the lunar lander a little too small for their required specifications.
It’s hilarious, but an inventive premise. The retrospective retelling of 80s sci-fi, except for Linklater, via its narrator, the adult Stan, tries to give enough context to what got him this far. What follows is a kaleidoscopic reel of ’60s Americana highlights, with Stan’s childhood being the center from which the story produces its various tendrils. The shift from such a sci-fi premise to the basic nostalgic storytelling of a suburban kid’s life in the ’60s feels shocking and unwelcome. But over time you realize the subtitle of the movie and the movie starts to make sense.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is almost a storybook, a lively account of the years leading up to the fateful 1969 moon landing and the events, big and small, that accompanied or preceded it. In the hands of another filmmaker, it might feel like navel-gazing for fun. But the decision to use animation, especially smooth cel-shaded animation, gives the film a unique visual spin on storytelling. The storyline, mostly told by voice-over, is still smart and witty at times, and thankfully doesn’t stray from young Stan’s perspective versus one of the adults as the protagonist. Sure, it meanders, adding in historical context cel-shaded animation overlaid with stock footage, giving the whole movie a very trippy vibe, but at its core it’s about Stan and his family, his relationship with his siblings, his love of pop culture and different flavors of ice cream. And yet, though it seems inconsequential, there are times when Stan recognizes the different philosophies of people from the 60s with those of the present. This usually manifests in accidents like ice cream almost tearing the skin off your tongue because it has turned to dry ice, or driving a van down the highway at over 70 miles per hour. without fear of “becoming a traffic accident”.
But the central question arises: what is it for? What’s the point of a child being inducted into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for top-secret testing of the moon landing vehicle? It could be that Linklater’s imagination is much more rooted in the confines of the story while still being suitably fantastical without looking like a comic book. As references to classic kitschy horror or the glut of ’60s TV series suggest, Linklater and Stan as a character have sufficiently active imaginations that the frankly bizarre plot devices ultimately make sense.
However, the big flaw in “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is the narrative context. According to the account, the events of Apollo 10 1/2 happened and were not a figment of Stan’s imagination. And while the profound effect of the first moon landing on history is explored by commentators and the varying reactions of family members when they watch the CBS broadcast of the moon landing simulation, it begs the question. If Stan really is one of the top-secret Moon landing testers, it’s hard to ignore that he’s a teenager, and therefore harder to ignore his propensity to at least divulge that secret to his friends. parents. The argument is that NASA is instructing it as “top secret”, and Stan accepts it because it’s a simplistic morality movie. But again, if you explore the impact of the Space Age and the effect it had on the common population of American suburbs, the lack of depth Stan experienced, even as an adult narrator, in the insofar as it doesn’t even know how to refer to any sort of emotional catharsis or feeling of pride or wondrous elation, feels like a missed opportunity. The entire event and premise again could have been a dream produced through Stan’s imagination, but that’s not what the film implied, subtly or overtly.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is an interesting return to the medium of animation by Richard Linklater, and like many of its peers, its exploration of ’60s America is both distinctly different and yet meaningful. . Its decision to use animation literalizes the burst of candy-coated nostalgia that’s shown throughout the story, and the premise exudes simplicity, helping Apollo 10 1/2 evoke a warm, happy feeling for the public. It also manages to convey the feeling of living in a decade for which you had no context other than pop culture, and that’s something I’m grateful to Linklater for.
Learn more: ‘Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood’ Ends, Explained: Did Stan Go to the Moon?