Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

Richard Linklater | 1hr 38min

Stan was born in 1959 on the cusp of the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and at age 10 ½ this makes him just old enough to be drafted into NASA’s secret space program for children right before the moon landing. He is a proto-astronaut of sorts, testing the waters for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to clear up any technical issues that may arise. The fantasy element is obvious to us, but to Richard Linklater it might as well be a part of history. Above its whimsical dreams of traversing the cosmos, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a loving memory piece based in the late 60s Texas of Linklater’s youth, drawing heavily from the details of its entertainment, education, scientific industries, food, music, and politics to paint out a cultural landscape filtered through the eyes of a child.

The style of rotoscoped animation that Linklater experimented with in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly makes a return here in the creation of this intricate setting, offering an uncanny authenticity to the facial expressions and movements of its characters. When Apollo 10 ½ turns to reconstructing archival footage, it shifts slightly into a more minimalistic style with a boxy aspect ratio, reserving the finer details and widescreen format for Stan’s first-hand memories. The complexities of political movements and affairs simply do not linger in our young protagonist’s mind. Instead, the film unravels like a continuous stream-of-consciousness, carried along by a ubiquitous voiceover from an older Stan who, while played by Jack Black, might as well stand in for Linklater himself.

It is often Apollo 10 ½’s editing which entrances us more than its visual beauty, flitting through montages that bridge one thought to the next with relative ease, densely packing in the idiosyncrasies and mundanities of Stan’s childhood. His mum’s resourceful reinventions of Sunday’s leftovers into dinner for the next four nights, his siblings’ cruel jokes about him being adopted, his disappointment with his dad’s unexciting low-level position at NASA, his nan’s regular trips to the cinema to watch The Sound of Music – for the first fifty minutes of Apollo 10 ½, Linklater exhibits little interest in plot, forgoing traditional narrative to bask in the authentic reconstruction of a cherished time period, much like he has done before in Dazed and Confused and Boyhood.

With this easy-going setup dominating the first fifty minutes of the film, the progression into Stan’s childhood fantasy barely feels like much of a shift at all. His obsession with NASA is all-encompassing, feeding his aspiration and wonder at what the future might hold, and its manifestation in his imagination carries about the same level of detail as anything else, with Black’s voiceover breaking it down to its most basic, humdrum details. In reframing the space race as part of an everyday routine, Linklater discovers a universal experience within it – the thrill of progress and discovery, not being reserved for scientists and astronauts on television, but rather being shared by every living being in a single moment of unity.

From Linklater’s perspective, these pioneers travelling to the Moon may as well be children given their tiny size within the grand scope of the universe, and with helmets blocking out their faces and identities, he happily indulges that prospect. Through Stan’s half-awake eyes, we see this hazy dream being born on the precipice of sleep. In that world, it is his face that looks out from behind the astronaut’s reflective visor, seeing mankind’s giant leap open up a whole universe of possibilities. If Apollo 10 ½ isn’t a fantasy, then perhaps it is Linklater’s alternate history, reflecting on the innocent ambition of the past and constructing a version that justifies its own naivety. For as idealistic a filmmaker as him, the future has never looked brighter than it does in the hands of a child.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is currently streaming on Netflix.

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