Writer/director Richard Linklater has taken a few trips back in time throughout his filmmaking career, giving nostalgic looks at the 1970s in Dazed and Confused and the 1980s in Everybody Wants Some!!. Now the Austin-based filmmaker has delved back into his childhood in the 1960s with the animated film Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.
The film uses the same rotoscope animation technique he employed in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, in which animators overlay live-action shots with imagery to give it a distinctive look. A semi-autobiographical story for Linklater, who was born and lived in Houston throughout the 1960s, it centers on Stan (Milo Coy), a young boy fascinated with the burgeoning NASA space program.
Linklater’s premise initially promises to be a fantastical one, with Stan getting hand-picked by NASA administrators Jerry Bostick (Glen Powell) and Gene Kranz (Zachary Levi) to be a test pilot for a space capsule that was accidentally designed too small for adults. That out-there concept turns out to be merely a framework for Linklater to take a deep dive into all of his childhood memories, turning the film into a type of documentary in the process.
Using voiceover by Jack Black as the adult Stan, the film goes into intricate detail about what life was like as a kid in Houston in the 1960s. No element is too small, from kickball games on the elementary school playground to the bland food they ate as a family to the introduction of touch-tone phones. A lot of the scenes emphasize how, in retrospect, life was pretty dangerous for kids back then, from riding in back of a pickup on the highway to shooting fireworks at each other, things they didn’t even think twice about in the moment.
Naturally, the film talks a lot about the influence the space program had on the city and its residents, from the actual space flights to the space-related imagery and names that came to define Houston. There have been plenty of films, documentaries, and television shows about the early days of NASA, but there’s something about seeing it from the perspective of a kid — albeit one with a NASA employee as a father — that makes the familiar seem new again.
All of that could easily be a lot of navel-gazing, with Linklater’s nostalgia working against him. But he creates a series of scenes that are so fun and engaging that, even if you didn’t grow up in Linklater’s era, it’s easy to feel the draw of that time. Stan is part of a family of eight — two parents and six kids — and they’re put forth as an idealized group that, despite the typical sibling disagreements, is as tight-knit as you can get.
The 97-minute film spends the bulk of its time on the scenes from Stan’s childhood, mostly leaving its odd premise behind. It becomes clear that Stan being recruited as a kid astronaut is more of a way to show how enamored he was of the space program as a whole. It would have been fun to have the concept explored a bit more, but the film is much richer for not making it the main thrust of the story.
Aside from Powell, Levi, and Black, the cast is comprised of actors whose names most viewers won’t know. Still, through a combination of writing and animation, each member of Stan’s family becomes a great character, as do Stan’s school friends. It may be difficult to recognize the actors in the real world, but they all deliver highly effective performances.
Linklater has now mined each of his first three decades for nostalgia-based stories, and Apollo 10 ½ is just as good as the previous two films. Who knows what he’ll do next, but Linklater continues to prove himself as a compelling filmmaker with unique ideas.
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood debuts on Netflix on April 1.