Review: Nostalgia, Ambition and Outer Space Loom Large in Richard Linklater’s Endearing Apollo 10½

Using the same animation style (and lead animator Tommy Pallotta) he used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, writer/director Richard Linklater brings us the more personal tale of his growing up in Houston during the height of the space race in Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood. The story is told through the eyes of fourth grader Stan and the voice of grown-up Stan (voiced by a Texas-accented Jack Black), who grew up in a large family and in a community in which NASA and the space program were inescapable—not that a kid Stan’s age would ever want to escape it, quite the contrary.

The film opens with a flight of fancy. Stan is so obsessed with the race to the moon that he remembers an incident in which two government agents (Zachary Levi and Glen Powell) came to see him at school to recruit him for a secret mission. It turns out that the NASA scientists and designers made the Apollo capsule too small for adults, so they ask Stan if he’ll be the first boy in space (secretly), pretending to be the Apollo astronauts. People watching at home will never know the difference since the scale will be correct, and Stan will be the unsung hero of the space program. He tries to play it cool, but he accepts the offer, and the secret training begins immediately.

From this point on, most of Apollo 10½ becomes more of a memoir than this daydream, as adult Stan walks us through just how immersed his childhood was with all things related to space. The film’s level of detail is fantastic, as Stan remembers how every sale put on by any local business has a space or rocket theme. His father worked for NASA, but only in shipping and receiving. But hey, it takes a village to put a man on the moon, and Stan thought it was cool, even if his dad was frequently grumpy. Linklater walks us through what it was like to live with so many brothers and sisters, with a mother who ran the household like a regimented ship, because to do anything else would be to invite chaos into their home.

Linklater remembers a time when kids went largely unsupervised, were allowed to explore the world in their own ways, and their parents were cool with that as long as they were home for dinner. The film is built on pure nostalgia, remembering a bygone time during which the world and the country were ambitious and dreams were built by scientists and astronauts. The fictional adventure story gets pushed to the side for much of Apollo 10½, but we don’t really miss it. It’s more of a conduit or gateway story to get us to Linklater’s sweet, effortless remembrances. In case you hadn’t figured it out, the film is safe for all ages, but it’s clearly a memory piece about childhood, told by an adult. There are no signs of pandering or any other technique to make the material more accessible to younger viewers. It’s a pure Linklater experience to the core, with hints of social commentary without getting too militant (anti-Vietnam activists are sprinkled throughout). The movie is charming, quite funny, and heartfelt, and reminds us that Linklater is a national treasure.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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