This review comes out of the 2022 media expo SXSW, where Polygon sent writers to look at the next wave of upcoming releases.
Richard Linklater specializes in nostalgia. His coming-of-age movies, from Dazed and Confused to Everybody Wants Some to Boyhood, immerse his audience in a specific place and era, capturing the nuances of its day-to-day life with characters that feel real. In his latest project, the rotoscoped Netflix film Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, that time and place is as much a fantasy as it is a personal, autobiographical reality. But in its more realistic elements, it explores how hope for the future and horror of the present blend in the eyes of one suburban child.
Apollo 10 1/2 is set in spring 1969, just a few months before the real-world Apollo 11 mission landed the first explorers on the moon. Two NASA scientists, played by Zachary Levi and Glen Powell (recently the go-to actor for playing astronauts and NASA scientists) realize they built one of the Apollo modules too small for an adult. Their best solution? Recruit a fourth-grader named Stanley, who has so-so grades and no discernable special skills, to operate the module. This is a fantastical and even silly that someone like Spy Kids’ Robert Rodriguez might have spun out into a trilogy, but Linklater isn’t that interested in the story’s space-adventure possibilities. Before Stanley can go to space, his adult self (played by a rather earnest Jack Black) stops the story to embark on a side story, taking up more than half the movie’s runtime to paint a picture of Stanley’s childhood. Don’t worry, he says — he promises he’ll return to the NASA stuff later.
From there, Apollo 10 1/2 focuses on Stanley’s daily life, growing up just outside of NASA in a Houston suburb with his five older siblings, his mom, and a dad who pushes papers for the space program. Linklater paints a picture of Stanley’s life with precision and care. Even without the rotoscope animation allowing the captured live-action performances to be realistic, the film feels real, like an actual peek through time. Linklater focuses on small, grounded things: the family’s daily routine, the siblings’ petty squabbles, the games the kids make up when they’re bored on a rainy day, the fights over control of the television. TV and movies are a big part of this film, and even with a run time just over 90 minutes, Linklaker makes time to give his audience a sense of the kids’ viewing schedule, and the importance each show and theatrical release has to Stanley and his siblings. In many ways, this is a semi-autobiographical film about Linklater’s own childhood, focusing in on the last summer where going to the Astroworld theme park was an adventure, and watching the new episode of Dark Shadows was more important than anything.
The sense of a major shift on the horizon for Stanley comes because Linklater constantly draws attention to just how sheltered the boy’s childhood is, and how much things are changing all around him. He only briefly comments on his privileged childhood in a direct way, but it’s still painted all over the movie. TV reports about protests against the moon landing are used to distract viewers from larger social problems, and it’s clear that Stanley buys into that distraction completely. It wasn’t easy to ignore the world’s problems in 1969, with the war in Vietnam claiming thousands of teenage lives. At school, Stanley is still learning the duck-and-cover defense against possible atomic attack, and his middle-class suburb, populated mostly by white middle-class NASA workers, has no people of color in sight.
Black’s narration brings out this cultural dissonance in Stanley’s life, with a hint of sadness and regret as he explains how unique this moment was, because of the juxtaposition between being excited for the space age and the new technology making life more exciting, and the horror of living in the middle of a war. Political leaders were being assassinated, as reports on global warming and the eventual irreparable ecological damage of overpopulation were telling people that the future would not be pleasant. While the adults in the film can’t stop talking about the morality of littering and the death of the planet, for a suburban Texas kid, it was easy to ignore the scary stuff and focus on the excitement of an amusement park or a new film. The timing of this film’s release — with a pandemic still raging around the world and a war in Europe, while blockbuster comic book movies continue to break box-office records — is a reminder of how little humanity changes from era to era, which only bolsters the movie’s point.
Linklater communicates the same idea through the animation, his return to rotoscope after 17 years. Apollo 10 1/2 is very different from his past rotoscope features, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, because Apollo has such a clear, focused goal for its animation — to bring the cloudy memories of a child to life, and accentuate the fantasy inside the reality. When Stanley falls asleep as the actual moon landing is happening, in spite of his excitement for it, his mom tells his dad, “Even if he was asleep, he’ll one day think he saw it all.” That’s the sentiment that drives the entire movie forward: the way our memories morph with time, creating individual fantasies about what the past was actually like. The animation team, led by Tommy Pallotta, chose to use motion-capture of real actors, then animate on top of the footage to better mold the world that they want to see. The process gives the characters hyper-realistic, nuanced expressions to go with the layers of vibrant colors and the cartoony, fantastical backgrounds.
This clearly isn’t the real 1960s — it’s the 1960s from Stanley’s mind (and Linklater’s), one that revolved around the TV, playing in the street, and looking out at the stars in wonder. One of the film’s most visually interesting moments comes when Stanley explains the kind of shows he used to watch on TV, and Linklater shows viewers rotoscoped versions of old TV and movie intros, including The Wizard of Oz, The Twilight Zone, and a trippy rotoscoped version of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Using animation to illustrate Stanley’s memories makes the film’s approach to nostalgia clearer and cleverer, because it manages to explain away the things that aren’t seeing as the results of the main character’s selective and sheltered memory. This is a rose-colored take on the past, but only because Linklater experienced it that way. As Black’s adult voice suggests, he eventually began to see things as they are.
By the time Linklater returns to the initial premise of a child going to space, juxtaposed with rotoscoped footage of the real Apollo 11 moon landing and launch, the film has come full circle. Apollo 10 1/2 is a charming, visually striking blend of history and fantasy that captures the way children see and process historical events happening around them, and considers what they choose to remember — and how those choices affect them as adults, and the worlds they choose to build around them.
Apollo 10 1/2 debuts on Netflix on April 1.