Richard Linklater has such an eclectic filmography, and he’s long been known to stay out of working directly in Hollywood. The Texas-born filmmaker is known mostly for his indie projects, in which he repeatedly collaborates with some of the same people. His latest feature, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood takes a page out of the Alfonso Cuarón/Kenneth Branagh book, and looks back at his childhood with a mix of rose-colored glasses and the mature gaze that only someone decades removed from it could have.
While Cuarón and Branagh went the black-and-white route with their films (Roma and Belfast, respectively), Linklater opted to go with rotoscoped animation for his tale of a young boy being the actual first human on the moon. Young Stan (Milo Coy, and narration by Jack Black, one of the aforementioned frequent collaborators, playing the adult version of the character) mans what was dubbed Apollo 10 1/2, the secret mission to the moon prior to Apollo 11, because NASA accidentally built their spacecraft too small for adult astronauts. Whether this is true in the world of the film, or just the work of a child’s imagination run wild doesn’t really matter, because it’s all meant to be a vehicle for days past.
Linklater’s choice of rotoscope animation brings a special kind of nostalgia to the film it wouldn’t otherwise have. Much like the technique used to achieve rotoscoping, it functions as a layer of embellishment over the true memories. On top of that, it’s simply a marvel and a beauty to look at. The animation is crisp and immersive, and you feel like you’re right in Stan’s memories.
Stan grew up in the 1960s in Houston, amidst the space race and technological advancements. It dives into just how a child could feel at this time — the world was full of possibility, and even though his life wasn’t perfect and they weren’t upper class, there was still so much good to find and fun to experience for a kid with five siblings living in the suburbs. Essentially, this feels like the greatest hits of Linklater’s childhood. He names just about every activity there was in this area, the specific games that Stan and his siblings would play and make up, what they’d eat and when, the idiosyncrasies of the people he was surrounded with, and just about every other little detail that someone living in this time and place would come up with if they sat down with a pen and paper to make a list. It’s both alienating and relatable at the same time — even though this kid experienced specific things, he still had all the same feelings, anxieties, and aspirations as every other kid in modern America.
Sure, Apollo 10 1/2 can at times feel like an animated documentary about the ‘60s, but it’s endlessly endearing. You can’t help but feel pulled in and nostalgic as someone recounts their childhood. He goes over the good and the bad, but since he was a kid that wasn’t living in much hardship, so much of it has the glaze of childhood innocence, and it’s hard not to be drawn in by that. At the same time, the film is aware of the difficulties of the era — Stan mentions being constantly aware of nuclear threats and how so much of what they did as children, we know now to be dangerous. But in a sense, it’s almost reassuring. It highlights the ways in which each and every generation deals with their contemporary existential dread. For his grandparents, it was the Depression. For him and his siblings, it was the threat of nuclear fallout. For us, it’s climate change (and of course so much more, but like everything, there’s nuance). There’s a welcome hopefulness to seeing the world through the eyes of someone recounting their childhood.
Towards the end of the movie, after Stan falls asleep watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, his parents say to each other, “You know how memory works: even if he was asleep, he’ll somehow think he saw it all.” This quote perfectly encapsulates this film and everything it’s saying about memory, especially childhood memories. Though Apollo 10 1/2 spans year’s worth of culture and world events, it feels reassuringly insular. Sometimes it’s nice to see the world through someone else’s eyes.