Late in Richard Linklater’s 2014 magnum opus, Boyhood, his young protagonist leaves for college and his mother bursts into tears — not because she is losing her son, but because the mundanity of such a moment is passing by without exclamation. In her words: “I just thought there would be more.” Hers, and ours, is a struggle with time, and the slow realization that our lives are not narrativized, but endlessly present. Linklater’s cinema ponders this philosophical dilemma, and a handful of times he has crafted masterpieces that give us an answer. In his hands we are reminded that the present, the spaces in between our big life moments, are where “magic” is found.
Returning to his bread-and-butter coming of age film, Linklater’s new semi-auto biographical animated feature zooms in on a 10-year old boy, Stan (a sweet Stanley Kubrick homage) and his family in the suburbs of Houston, Texas during 1969. Neighbors to NASA, the story is told in voiceover from an older Stanley (a comforting Jack Black performance) as he reminisces about being a kid during the space age and Apollo missions. A love letter to growing up in the “future is now” 1960s — told with a blend of 2D, 3D, and motion capture — this memory piece is framed first as a childhood fantasy when we meet young Stan as he’s being recruited by NASA for a top secret mission to go to the moon! This daydream-esque device lets us into the mind of a kid at the time with a “what if they chose me?!” cute charm. Stanley keeps the secret and he does what kids do: plays baseball, goes to the movies, and gets ice cream, but of course Linklater’s talent lies in specificity. When kids got in trouble the teacher would face the kid against a wall, draw a circle just above their nose, and they would have to keep their nose inside the circle. Jack Black’s older Stanley tells us that he timed it just right and would bend down slightly so the circle wasn’t so uncomfortably high up. There’s a distance to the characters that stunts the pathos of the film, but it’s these sort of anecdotes that could only come from a memory and make Apollo 10 ½ so warmly honest.
There’s a 45 minute minute stretch after the framing device where you just float through vivid memories detailing family life, the freedom of youth, all while tapping your foot to an ecstatic soundtrack. “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” plays as Dad tells us about the difference between white trash and rednecks; Stanley’s sister obsesses over The Monkees; Stanley goes to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and explains the trippy finale to an uninterested friend during recess. These are all joyously told, but occasionally the film synthesizes childhood, memory, and space exploration into something more poignant; like when kids play neighborhood games and a plane soars above, breaking the sound barrier, and they stop to stare up in awe. The external wonders give way to the wonders of our interior experiences. As Linklater reveals more of his own memory, it feels as if we’re discovering our own — this is what makes Apollo 10 ½ worthwhile.
Thematically the framing device of Stanley’s astronaut fantasy is purposeful, but Linklater is so at home in his album of anecdotes that returning to the framing device lets out steam. It may be a road bump narratively but it is also where he derives a melancholic perspective about what this time meant. The 60s youthful ideal of young kids becoming astronauts of course doesn’t come true, and the space age never takes flight beyond the moon landing. We see here the moment it was possible — and in the future voiceover we eventually feel the wistfulness of these ideals, and Stanley’s childhood, quickly fading into the 70s. This macro space adventure is in conversation with and contrasts the micro story of a kid growing up. Much like his animated film Waking Life (one of his best), dreams and memories are not so different.
One could fit Apollo 10 ½ into a catalogue with recent Gen X filmmakers looking back at their youth with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza — but Linklater has been curious about the past his entire career. And to be more specific, his career thesis is showing us how the important past moments are actually the fleeting, inconsequential present we take for granted. This is his most explicitly nostalgic film, and a slighter work, but as we watch kids live through an endless summer and historical event he keenly observes that we remember things the way we want.
A warm trip down memory lane, rotating through vignettes with the lucidity of your own mind, Apollo 10 ½ is Linklater playing the hits, and that’s worth celebrating. Not as momentous as his masterpieces or as inventive as his two other animated experiments, but this space age drama is imbued with such an enthusiasm for youthful experience that you can’t help but recall your own once-mundane but now magical memories. Memory — it’s a funny thing.
Review by Andrew Zachariason
Apollo 10 ½. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Milo Coy, Jack Black...