Richard Linklater’s ode to nostalgia is always very colorful, very peppy, and light-hearted. Unlike his Before Trilogy dealing with profundity and thoughtful treatises on romance, love, and growing up, his coming of age movies like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some are both microcosmic explorations of a decade in a specific environment and, most importantly, fun. The closest Linklater comes to merging these two sides of his oeuvre is in 2014’s Boyhood, arguably his magnum opus shot over 12 years, and while it does get lost in the machinations of following the same cast for 12 years, it does manage to highlight the fun as well as the elegiac nature of growing up very effectively.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” feels far more in the vein of Dazed and Confused than, say, “Boyhood.” It is also very much a kid’s movie, where the machinations of the premise are as ludicrous and unexplainable as they sound. NASA agents talk to our teenage protagonist, Stan, and offer him a proposition to be their guinea pig in an unauthorized mission to test the Moon Lander before the fateful Apollo 11 sojourn to the moon. Their reasoning: they created the moon lander a little too small for their required specifications.
It is hilarious, but an inventive premise. Throwback storytelling of 80s science fiction, except Linklater, via his narrator, the adult Stan, tries to give ample context for what led him up to here. What follows is a kaleidoscopic highlight reel of 60s Americana, with Stan’s childhood being the center from which the story produces its differing tendrils. The shift from such a sci-fi premise to the basic nostalgic retelling of the life of a suburban kid in the 60s feels jarring and unwelcome. But as time progresses, you realize the subheading of the movie, and the movie starts to make sense.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is almost a storybook, a brightly animated recounting of the years leading up to the fateful moon landing of 1969 and the events both large and small that accompanied or preceded it. In the hands of another filmmaker, this might feel like navel-gazing for the sake of it. But the decision to use animation, especially smooth cel-shading animation, gives the film a unique visual spin on storytelling. The screenplay, mostly narrated via voiceover, is still smart and witty at moments, and thankfully doesn’t deviate from the point of view of the young Stan to any of the adults as the protagonist. Sure, it meanders, adding in historical context with cel-shaded animation layered over archival footage, giving the entire film a very trippy vibe, but at its core, it is about Stan and his family, his relationship with his brothers and sisters, his love of pop culture, and the different flavors of ice cream. And yet, while it feels inconsequential, there are moments where Stan acknowledges the differing philosophies of people of the 60s with those of the present. This is usually shown via mishaps like ice cream almost tearing the skin of the tongue off because it has become dry ice, or driving a pickup truck on the highway at over 70 miles an hour without the worry of “becoming roadkill.”
But the central question does arise: what is the point? What is the point of a kid 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 far more rooted within the confines of history while also being suitably fantastical without being comic-book-like. As the references to classic kitsch horror or the glut of television series in the 60s would suggest, Linklater and Stan as a character have an imagination active enough that the contrivances in the frankly bizarre plot would ultimately make sense.
However, the big flaw in “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is the narrative context. According to the narrative, the events of Apollo 10 1/2 happened and were not a product of Stan’s imagination. And while the profound effect of the first moon landing on history is explored via commentators and the differing reactions of family members as they watch the CBS broadcast of the simulation of the moon landing, it does beg the question. If Stan truly is one of the top-secret testers of the Moon landing, it is hard to ignore that he is a teenager, and, thus, harder to ignore his propensity to at least divulge this secret to his parents. The argument is that NASA is instructing it as “top secret,” and Stan accepts it because this is a movie of simplistic morals. But then again, if you are exploring the impact of the space age and the effect it had on the common populace of suburban America, the lack of profundity experienced by Stan, even as the adult narrator, to the extent that he doesn’t even reference any sort of emotional catharsis or feeling of pride or wondrous elation, feels like a missed opportunity. The entire event and the premise could again very much have been a dream produced due to Stan’s imagination, but that isn’t what was implied by the movie, subtly or overtly.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is an interesting return to the animation medium by Richard Linklater, and like many of his peers, his exploration of 60s America is both markedly different and yet significant. His decision to use animation literalizes the candy-coated sheen of nostalgia that is shown throughout the story, and the premise oozes out simplicity, helping Apollo 10 1/2 elicit a warm and happy feeling for the audience. It also manages to impart the feeling of living in a decade you had no context for other than pop culture, and that is something I am thankful to Linklater for.