A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2022

APOLLO 10 1/2: 

A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD jjjj
 

2022, PG-13, 98 mins.

Zachary Levi  as Kranz  /  Glen Powell as Bostick  /  Milo Coy as Stanley  /  Lee Eddy as Mom  /  Bill Wise as Dad  /  Jack Black as grown up Stanley  /  Josh Wiggins as Steve   /  Natalie L'Amoreaux as Vicky  /  Jessica Brynn Cohen as Jana  /  Sam Chipman as Greg  /  Danielle Guilbot as Stephanie  /  Samuel Davis as Joey  /  Nick Stevenson as Simsup

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

ORIGINAL FILM

What if I told you that Neil Armstrong was not the first man to step foot on the Moon?   

And what if I also told you that the actual first human to do so was a fourth grader from Houston, Texas that was hand picked by NASA to take part in an ultra top secret mission to do a test run of the journey to the Moon to ensure that Armstrong and company would have no issues whatsoever on their mission?  

Sounds bonkers, I know.

I love alternate history what-if stories, which is what compellingly anchors writer/director Richard Linklater's new Netflix film APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD.  Marking a return to the type of rotoscope animation that he last utilized to great effect in 2006's A SCANNER DARKLY, Linklater's film features gorgeously vibrant imagery, but it also serves as a sweetly nostalgic story of growing up as a child in pre-Moon landing 1960s Texas.  And because the director grew up also in the era in question, APOLLO 10 1/2 - despite its fantastical flourishes - is perhaps his most personal film to date.  Linklater was originally slated to shoot and release this as a purely live action affair, but instead opted to return to techniques that he employed for A SCANNER DARKLY and, before that, WAKING LIFE, albeit with far finer end results.  Beyond that, this film also serves as a great companion piece to his other coming of age efforts like the 1970s themed DAZED AND CONFUSED and his 1980s set (and terribly underrated) EVERYBODY WANTS SOME; APOLLO 10 1/2 rounds off this walk down memory lane trilogy rather well, and like those other films it cements viewers in its time and place with resounding immediacy and confidence. 

Even though this story has an unmistakable autobiographical approach and is culled from Linklater's own Houston-based childhood in the 60s, the secret child Moon landing mission is, of course, pure make believe, but it's wonderfully inventive and enthralling, nevertheless.  APOLLO 10 1/2 is told via two distinct vantage points: We get the story we're all familiar with in the first manned Moon landing in the summer of 1969, but it's through the perspectives of (a) the astronauts and crew that made their indelible mark in history and (b) the child who miraculously ended up there before them.  Told in an infectiously sincere WONDER YEARS-esque voiceover track by Jack Black (playing the kid as an adult reflecting back), we first meet future boy astronaut Stanley (Milo Coy) as a lad living in El Lago, Texas (just outside of Houston) in the months leading up to the famed Moon landing.  Stanley's father (Bill Wise) works at NASA already, but in a rather unglamorous paperwork/desk job.  Also living with Stanley are his five siblings and his homemaker mother (Lee Eddy) and for the most part they're all living a well adjusted middle class family existence.  Stanley just seems like any other normal kid on his block. 

 

 

But, yes, his life changes forever when a couple of NASA techs (a lively Zachary Levi and Glen Powell ) pay Stanley a visit at school and pull him aside to give him some shocking news.  It appears that NASA engineers have made a major mistake in crafting the lunar lander too small for adult occupancy, so they want to embark on a crazy (and very, very clandestine) plan to hire Stanley (based on his physical and mental abilities and, uh huh, his size) to train at NASA for the summer for a single test run flight to the Moon to ensure that everything will work well for the men to come.  This will involve him being away from home for the summer and, most crucially, not telling anyone of his mission (not even his family), but the NASA folks have constructed and massive alibi for him in the form of summer camp (complete with fabricated credentials and pictures).  Stanley takes it all in stride and joins NASA to begin his arduous training to become an astronaut, but all within a few short months.  From this point in the film of Stanley's early days with NASA the story then segues to a long 40-plus minute flashback that has him reminisce about his childhood and all of the pleasures and stresses of living during this gargantuan decade of fundamental social and political change. 

Yes, again, this premise of a pre-teen kid being recruited to test out the not ready for adult use lunar module for the most important journey in human history is...well...really out there.  But it's gangbusters fun and Linklater's whole approach to it takes a decided tongue in cheek approach.  What's of crucial importance is that APOLLO 10 1/2 uses it as a launching point to tell a reflective story of Linklater's own life and times during the 60s, and the more the story gets drawn into the everyday minutia of Stanley's family the more enthralling it becomes.  And Linklater utilizes great patience and the utmost care in establishing and chronicling this tightly knit (and rather large) family unit, and he gets so many of the tiny lived-in details so right that you often feel like you're watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary.  The best way I would describe the feeling of watching these absorbing sections of APOLLO 10 1/2 is that it's like seeing a scrapbook of photos come lovingly to life.  The choice of going rotoscope animation is paramount to selling this throwback illusion.  All of the actors were captured on green screens for real and just about everything they interacted with in terms of props was animated in later.  The animation team - headed by Tommy Pallotta - have effectively used their artistry here to suggest the amalgamating of fantasy and historical memory in one glorious package.  It's all about selling the fantasy that's cemented deep with the reality of the times.  APOLLO 10 1/2 is just so sumptuous to look at and get lost in, and the storybook infused animation here benefits the actors most, seeing as it's able to capture the most subtle of emotions and body language that normal hand drawn (or CG) animation can't achieve.   

And for any Baby Boomer watching, APOLLO 10 1/2 will be monster piece of arousing nostalgia bait, but nostalgia bait done with style and tact.  It's like having a rush of pop culture and history wash over you while following the comings and goings of Stanley and his family, whether it be in the pleasures of spending a sunny afternoon at Astroworld theme park or enjoying pinball machines and soda pops at bowling alleys or watching TV and being introduced to shows like DARK SHADOWS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, or Dick Cavett interviewing celebrities of the day.  The film also serves as an appreciation of the cinema of the decade as well, with Stanley and his clan experiencing everything from B-grade horror pleasures like THE BLOB to iconic trendsetters (and eerily accurate for what's to come) sci-fi fare like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (which Stanley reflects got an awful lot right about the Moon landings that came one year after its release).  This family is also exposed to watching Golden Age classics for the first time on TV (and in color!) like THE WIZARD OF OZ.  What's nifty here is that we get tiny rotoscoped animation versions of these films placed within the main rotoscoped animated feature (it's like rotoscope INCEPTION!), but APOLLO 10 1/2 also doesn't shy away from some of the more macabre aspects of 60s society that was just naively accepted as commonplace and safe, like, for instance, Stanley recalling sucking up and inhaling fresh DDT being unleashed from the back of trucks through his neighborhood. 

To its credit, not all of this nostalgia is of the rose tinted variety.  Like a good student of history, Linklater doesn't overlook the inherent darkness that permeated to social/political scene of this tumultuous era.  The Moon landing in question was easily one of the most anticipated televised events of the 60s, but as APOLLO 10 1/2 wisely reminds there were many pockets of society that felt that America's money could be better served dealing with larger dilemmas of the era, like combating poverty and feeding the most downtrodden (quiet logically, many Americans thought that the time and capital invested into the Space Race should have gone towards solving our woes back on Earth first and foremost).  Beyond that, it would be increasingly hard to ignore the litany of other world hardships that permeated the American consciousness back then, like a raging out of control Vietnam War killing soldiers by the thousands, not to mention many prominent historical figures like J.F.K. and Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated.  Perhaps most pertinent to Stanley's childhood recollections was the fear of nuclear war erupting between the Cold Warring Russia and the U.S., which led to daily duck and cover drills in class.  Amusingly, though, Stanley admits that - in hindsight - hiding under his school desk would not have saved him from radiation, fallout, or the blast waves of an A-bomb. 

Everything covered in APOLLO 10 1/2 has seen the light of day in movies before, but not quite like what Linklater has enthusiastically drummed up here.  The sights and sounds are abundantly familiar, no question, but the viewfinder used is wholly unique and fresh.  Even though Stanley's outrageous mission to train and wind up on the Moon well before his much more famous and revered adult astronauts is spectacularly silly and improbable, it still represents an ultimately boy wish fulfillment fantasy come to life (what kid of this time didn't want to be a hero astronaut for real?).  This leads to one of the most amusingly ironic moments in APOLLO 10 1/2, which sees Stanley's entire family (and the millions upon millions of other families) glued to their grainy TV sets to watch Armstrong step foot on the Moon, but Stanley is so tired of the ordeal of his own mission (SPOILER ALERT - he mades it there and back in one piece) that he falls asleep during the broadcast, much to his dad's frustrating disbelief.  I mean, in his eyes, this is the culmination of years of NASA work and sacrifice...and his kid can't be bothered to stay conscious to experience the end results.  But what he doesn't know is that his son was there already.  When Armstrong hits the lunar surface and emotes his feelings to all mankind all Stanley can think is "Been there...done that...and no one will ever know that I was the first." 

I love films that are so generous with their details, and Linklater's APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD (a bit of an awkward title, sure) is an unendingly generous filmgoing experience.  It serves as an exquisite piece of animation craft that becomes more engrossing by the minute.  It serves as a boomer fuelled mood and time piece that wondrously harkens back to a period that will probably never been duplicated again or experienced in quite the same manner (just imagine coming to gripes with the unfathomable technological innovation that was required to get mankind off Earth and to the Moon...my Gen-X childhood never had that moment).  Finally, Linklater's film also serves as a riveting portrait of 60s youth and family ties, and one that's so teaming with richness of a past lived experience.  You really can feel that this Linklater is living vicariously  through this film as it presents a version of his own family life on screen, albeit with some absolute flights of fancy thrown in here and there to spice things up. 

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