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Netflix Review: Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

April 2, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Did Richard Linklater really go to the moon as a kid? Not likely, but his latest film, the very charming and sweetly nostalgic Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, will make you believe he might have for a little over ninety minutes.

Done in a similar rotoscoped animation style to his earlier animated films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Apollo 10½ takes us back to the summer of 1969 in Houston, Texas, where Linklater grew up.

The narrative centres around Stan (Milo Coy), a fourth grader and the youngest of six kids, whose father (Bill Wise) works for NASA in shipping and receiving. The film is narrated by Jack Black, who gives voice to an adult Stan as he looks back fondly on growing up in this manmade suburban heaven through voiceover that at times recalls A Christmas Story.

The setup for the film is as such; they accidentally made the lunar module for the Apollo 11 mission too small, and need a kid to go up in it as a dry run. Stan is visited at school by two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) who select him for the top secret mission, to be carried out while his family and friends think he is at summer camp. But this whimsical and fantastical subplot about Stan going to the moon becomes almost secondary to the film, which mainly exists as an evocative remembrance of this bygone era.

What Linklater does so well is transport us back to this time and place, painting a vivid portrait of what life was like for a kid in Texas during that summer and over those few days when coverage of the moon landing gripped the nation. The film often unfolds like a spoken word essay as Black’s Stan regales us with stories from his childhood, with Linklater’s beautifully written screenplay offering a great amount of detail in his fond memories of the time. This includes the movies that he saw and the shows that he watched, which have been cleverly recreated through rotoscoping.

There are hints of October Sky and The Iron Giant in the film’s nostalgic view of the Space Race era, as remembered through the rose-tinted glasses of childhood. The social upheaval of the time, stemming from the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, does creep into the film. But it mainly exists on the periphery of young Stan’s understanding, more something that his socially conscious older sisters who listen to Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell are concerned about. Meanwhile, routine “duck and cover” drills at school drive home the importance of beating the Soviets to the moon.

The animation, which is smoother and less fluid than Linklater’s previous films that employed a similar rotoscoping technique, makes everything feel like a slightly faded memory (the filmmakers even used old home videos from Houston in 1969 as reference). The film unfolds with a free-flowing plot that is all about capturing a feeling. In this way, Apollo 10½ is more tonally similar to one of Linklater’s hangout films, except with added voiceover narration.

What emerges is a powerful time capsule of the era that weaves quite a spell though its mix of animation, voiceover narration, and a soundtrack of carefully selected pop songs from the time. There is just such a sense of wistfulness to Apollo 10½ that it makes us yearn for that summer, even if, like me, you weren’t even born yet. And that’s the real magic of Linklater’s film.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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