At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Apollo 10 ½: A Space-Age Childhood “2022”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Animated Coming-Of-Age Science Fiction/Voices of: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Glen Powell, Zachary Levi, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, Danielle Guilbot/Runtime: 98 minutes

I think it can be said that, in the aftermath of the release in the 90s of his throwback to life in high school during the 1970s in small town Texas masterpiece slice of cinema that is Dazed and Confused as well as the fairly wonderful in its own right tribute to college life through the eyes of a freshman student athlete in the 1980s that is 2016’s Everybody Wants Some, iconic film helmer Richard Linklater’s latest slice of cinema, and the movie I am reviewing today, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is one slice of cinema that in many aspects gives off the vibe of being the belated yet no less welcome fulfillment of an unofficial trilogy in the making. Indeed there are not that many American film helmers who are as skilled at conjuring up cinematic outings that feel like nostalgia voyages through distinct periods of time with this one taking place in the suburbs of Houston during the late 1960s. Yet along with that, we also see that this slice of cinema is able to wrap up another unique trilogy of Linklater’s that has been a long time in the making. Namely slices of cinema that are constructed through the utilization of incredibly beautiful rotoscope animation (with the first two entries being 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s highly underrated A Scanner Darkly). Indeed yes it may at times every now and then give off the vibe of being perhaps a wee bit scattershot for its own, but even with that in mind there is no denying that this slice of cinema still is more than able to accomplish the one thing that all of the finest entries in Linklater’s filmography really aim to do and are extremely successful at doing so. Namely they are able to plant you smackdab in a specific period of time and place. Not only in terms of exterior details like fashions wore by the characters, music choices on the soundtrack, or even such things as Family Plot from 1976 appearing on a theater marquee in Dazed and Confused for example, but also by internal details like the thought processes shared with you the viewer by the characters. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema is able to accomplish that and so much more. Indeed a beautiful blend of whimsical fantasy and heartwarming voyage down memory lane, the slice of cinema that is Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is one that mixes together Linklater’s trademark style of nostalgia cinema with his passion for rotoscope animation and gives us a sweet narrative about what it was like to grow up during the time man first set foot on the moon whilst also coming equipped with a truly inspiring message about the power of believing that anything can be accomplished no matter how seemingly weird or absurd it may be.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to the long ago year known as 1969, this slice of cinema is very much aware of the fact that we know that in July of that year, America won the space race by being the first country on the planet to have a man walk on the surface of the moon. At the same time though, this slice of cinema is also quick to post to you the question of what if Neil Armstrong wasn’t the first man on the moon? Yep you read that right: that proverbial one small step for a man was actually the second step made by a person on the lunar surface. As for who actually was the first to walk on the moon well that honor, according to this slice of cinema, was a young boy from Houston by the name of Stanley who was awarded the honor because he penned some fairly well-written reports for his science class, was the recipient of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award for the past three years, and because of the tiny little detail that NASA had accidentally made the lunar module a wee bit too small for Neil to fit into. Of course, as we soon learn from an older Stanley through voice-over narration, he may or may not have the gift (or curse depending on perspective) of being a fabulist (in cinematic terms: unreliable narrator) about his childhood. Thus this slice of cinema is not Linklater’s attempt to prove those conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was staged right nor is it his attempt to give us the “real saga” behind that famous event of the 20th century. Rather, this is Linklater providing us with a loving and wistful look back at his (even if it’s not exactly said outright) childhood in the very specific time and place of Houston, Texas in the 1960s. A look back that by the end of it is not only infused with the warmth and relatability that Linklater does so well, but also really makes us think back to our own childhoods and how we too may have, much in the same vein as this slice of cinema’s main character, been so inspired by some of the major events which occurred that we instantly found ourselves imagining what it would be like if we got the opportunity to be a part of them for ourselves….

Now the aforementioned delightful stroll down this character’s proverbial memory lane which manages to incorporate everything from Depression-remembering grandparents, the iconic vampire TV show (not the 2012 cinematic misfire) Dark Shadows, and even a visit to AstroWorld is the component that makes up the beating heart to this slice of cinema and what a wonderful treasure trove of nostalgia it turns out to be. Yet unlike those people whose level of nostalgia can be simplified to “hey! I remember when that actually aired on television in primetime instead of reruns, Linklater for this slice of cinema thankfully gets a lot more specific, and thus a lot more relatable, about both his reminiscences as well as his perspectives on what was occurring in the world around him at that particular point in time. As a result, yes we see that there are moments that talk quite a bit about social conditions, the space race, and even the conflict in Vietnam and yes they incorporate actual footage and photos that are then rotoscoped into the film. At the same time Linklater does a brilliant job at actually showing these news bulletins in all their glory imperfections and all as if he trying to say that the youthful innocence of his main character can only gloss over so much. Yet even during the moments where our main character is in school or spending time with his family and friends we are able to see that the work from the animation department is just as vibrant to the extent that I literally feel like these memories are being regaled to us in either a comic book or at least a sci-fi cartoon from that specific period of time. Key among these reminiscences is the incredible invention of television and we see that Linklater does a terrific job at showcasing it not only as a (at that time) newfangled technology that gave the viewer an incredible look at the world they hadn’t had up to that point, but also through a well-chosen collection of classic television programs that all make for wonderful reflections on the optimism and concern that were key components of the proverbial space age. We also see that Linklater also does a wonderful job of making sure to give a proper showcase in the background of the framework of the narrative of a lot of huge global issues that were going on at the time with perhaps the best example that comes to mind being that one of our main character’s older siblings is very much in the know about the Civil Rights Movement. Our main character on the other hand is only fringely familiar with what is going on and it is only when he reached adulthood that he could finally comprehend just how meaningful these events were and still are. As such, we see that this slice of cinema is able to stroll along a very thin wink and nod-style line between how naïve Stanley is as a kid and how world-savvy that the movie goer (and by extension the adult Stanley) truly is. Yet more than anywhere else in the film, I honestly felt that the arena where this movie felt the most personal was not only in where we see the various parts of Stanley’s life at home with his family, but also in the vast majority of the small dialogue exchanges that feel tailor made to the characters engaging in them. Indeed each and every one of these manages to contain wonderful nuances through both physical movement to say nothing of expressions and glances and which the actors engaged in them appear to have done a wonderful job of sculpting courtesy of a majestic degree of detail.

Now every single member of the cast in this slice of cinema all do wonderful work. Indeed this starts with our trinity of established stars in the form of Zachary Levi, Glen Powell, and Jack Black respectively even though they are all, more or less, co-stars in the grand scheme of things. I mean I thoroughly enjoyed Levi’s work in both the TV series Chuck and 2018’s criminally under viewed DC superhero movie Shazam and Powell’s in TV’s Scream Queens, and (among others) the slices of cinema Everybody Wants Some, and Expendables 3 to an extent from 2016 and 2014 respectively, but here both of these guys do a wonderful job playing off each other as the kind of NASA buddy duo that Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer made absolutely iconic in the 1983 masterpiece The Right Stuff. As for Jack Black, well it might be a spoiler to reveal that he is never seen on screen. At the same time however, you can rest assure that he does a great job at giving us voice-over narration as the older Stan that is not only a terrific mix of appreciative, wistful, and heartfelt, but also feels in many respects like a tribute to the narration provided by Daniel Stern in the original take on the iconic TV show The Wonder Years. Something that I am quite fairly confident, given what I know about Linklater, is not an accident by any stretch of the imagination. As for the rest of the cast minus one they all manage to do terrific at making their respective characters as three-dimensional as they possibly can and thus doing their part at fleshing out as much as possible the world of childhood that our main character is fondly looking back on be they the various members of his family, friend groups, or whathaveyou. Of course I would be seriously amiss if I didn’t mention the work done in this by Milo Coy as the younger Stanley (read: Richard Linklater surrogate) and honestly I thought he was pretty good. I mean no it’s not the best performance I have ever seen, but Coy does do a good job at giving us a character who is experiencing all of this awesome stuff and growing up during this unique era in U.S. history and yet he never lets it get to his head in any way. Rather, he just makes the most of every day of his childhood whilst continuing to live his life much in the way that kids do and in that respect this is a fairly wonderful performance.

All in all there is no denying dear reader that the slice of cinema that is Apollo 10½: A Space-Age Childhood is one that can, for quite a bit of its 98 minute runtime, feel like what you are viewing is a cinematic collection of both Linklater’s best of the best as well as the influences that inspired Linklater and made him the beloved indie filmmaker that he is seen as by many a movie goer. At the same time, this is still very much not only appreciated, but also a wonderful way to remind moviegoers that he still has many strengths as a film helmer that he can bring to the right material. This is because the last two slices of cinema that Linklater helmed back in 2019 and 2017 respectively were literary adaptations that, to varying degrees, didn’t have as much personality as you might expect to see in a slice of cinema from Linklater. A fact that was a wee bit disheartening when you consider the wonderfully personal trinity consisting of Before Midnight, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some that came before them. In that respect therefore, the slice of cinema that is Apollo 10½: A Space-Age Childhood is one that gives off the vibe of Linklater choosing to hit the infamous big red reboot button and choosing to make the return to things that we know and adore about him both as a helmer and a scribe and the results are truly magical. Indeed through this slice of cinema operating through the prism of rotoscope animation, Linklater is able to bring his trademark magic to the world of growing up yet again with the end result being further terrific proof that this man is easily one of the finest nostalgic film helmers since he can do so in a way that is both meaningful yet also doesn’t make us as movie goers feel like he is doing so whilst rocking a serious pair of the proverbial rose-colored glasses. Indeed there is a moment near the end of this slice of cinema where the mother of the main character says that someday Stanley will think he saw everything. Suffice it to say that when watching this slice of cinema don’t be surprised if you feel that Linklater is doing the same for all of us as movie goers. Not only in regards to not only the full kaleidoscope of childhood memories on display, but also perhaps even to the tiniest of hints here and there which suggest the origins of the brilliant filmmaker that he would eventually become. On a scale of 1-5 I give Apollo 10 ½: A Space-Age Childhood a solid 4 out of 5.