Richard Linklater’s ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

The director takes a deep dive into a formative moment in his Houston childhood, paralleling the first moon landing with his own astronaut fantasy in this Netflix animated feature narrated by Jack Black.

Few filmmakers have cast an eye back over childhood joys and growing pains with more piercing intimacy and resonant emotional connection than Richard Linklater in his sui generis masterwork, Boyhood. The writer-director returns to that territory — and also to animation — in a film that blends quirky imagination with rose-colored nostalgia, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood. This free-flowing account of a big, rambunctious Houston family in the summer of 1969, living a stone’s throw from NASA at the height of the Space Race, is a lovingly crafted remembrance with a flavorful dash of fantasy.

An ideal choice to premiere at SXSW, the film will bow April 1 on Netflix and is sure to appeal to the devoted fan base of Linklater, viewing frequent themes of time and memory through inarguably his most personal lens. For anyone in a similar age range to the director, the nonstop ping of pop-cultural references from the period will make this an especially sweet time capsule.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

The Bottom Line

A refreshing dip in the Sea of Tranquility.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)
Release date: Friday, April 1
: Milo Coy, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Josh Wiggins, Sam Chipman, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Danielle Guilbot, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell, Jack Black
Director-screenwriter: Richard Linklater

Rated PG-13,
1 hour 38 minutes

“You know how memory works,” says the young protagonist’s mother (voiced by Lee Eddy) toward the end of the film, as his father (Bill Wise) carries their sleeping son to bed, expressing disappointment that the kid is missing some of the Apollo 11 TV coverage. “Even if he was asleep, he’ll someday think he saw it all.” That beautiful blur of lived experience, dreams and the tricks of memory forms the backbone of Linklater’s storytelling here.

His semi-fictionalized stand-in is an elementary school kid named Stan (Milo Coy), whose child’s eye view is offset by the more seasoned perspective of his grownup self, voiced by Jack Black in narration that runs the entire length of the movie, feeding its substantial documentary element.

Young Stan is by his own admission a fabulist, so he spins an exciting career in advanced aeronautics for his father, something cool to hide his disappointment that the old man works at NASA in the dullsville shipping and receiving department.

But Stan’s biggest fabrication is his own recruitment off the kickball field by NASA scientists Kranz (Zachary Levi) and Bostick (Glen Powell) to man a top-secret mission about which he’s sworn to secrecy, forbidden even to tell his parents or his five older siblings. It seems the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, or LLTV, was accidentally constructed too small, so they need a kid to test it with a full moon mission before Apollo 11 can be cleared. Extensive training starts at the end of the school year, with cover provided in the form of a summer-camp scholarship.

That thread is set up somewhat deceptively at the start of the film as its principal plot driver. But it’s actually more like a fanciful motif that runs through the finely detailed recollections of Black’s narration.

He paints a vivid picture of suburban Houston at a time when everything was new — housing developments were springing up like mushrooms, the Astrodome was under construction, and even grass was being replaced on the playing field by synthetic AstroTurf. “Nature was being conquered,” he says, explaining that being near NASA in the late ‘60s was “like being where science fiction was coming to life.” Nature was also being conquered with DDT and other chemicals, but toxins were our friends back then.

The country was at war in Vietnam and civil rights protests dominated the evening news, but that was “all just TV” to Stan at the time — even cities on fire and assassinations. Only his hip oldest sister Vicky (Natalie L’Amoreaux) seemed plugged in to what was going on in the world beyond their doorstep. By contrast, everything about the Space Race was “cool and optimistic,” not only serving to dazzle excitable young boys but to distract adult Americans from the more unsettling realities facing the nation.

With boundless curiosity, the visual flair of a collage artist and the devotion to ephemera of a meticulous diarist, Linklater reflects on how the Space Race found its way into so much of quotidian life — advertising turned futuristic; rocket-shaped playground equipment took the place of ordinary slides and swings; science class was all cosmology and astronomy; and theater marquees enticed moviegoers with titles like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. In one funny scene, Stan tries to explain the Kubrick film’s ending to a schoolmate, who glazes over and bolts.

All this is punctuated by period pop, often leaning into songs with a trippy future vibe, among them “The Shape of Things to Come,” “Aquarius,” “Out of Limits,” and “Astronomy Domine,” with Texan musician Kathy McCarty’s 1995 sci-fi art-rock banger, “Rocket Ship,” on the end credits.

It should tickle anyone with even vague recollections of the late ‘60s to revisit the TV staples of the time — from cult favorites like Dark Shadows to obscure guilty pleasures like It’s About Time, in which two astronauts got sent back to the prehistoric age. There were late-night viewings of The Twilight Zone and once-a-year family gatherings to rewatch The Wizard of Oz. Then there was the weekly ritual of Saturday morning cartoons, one of the key retro visual cues taken by head animator Tommy Pallotta.

While Linklater’s previous animation detours in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly both stuck to interpolated rotoscoping, that technique is a minor part of Apollo 10½. The new film mainly uses a more traditional, handmade-looking 2D format, with some CG environments and performance capture, incorporating everything from newsreel footage and NASA archival material to talk show clips (like Janis Joplin on The Dick Cavett Show) and excerpts of Walter Cronkite’s historic broadcast of the moon landing. The director’s infectious fondness for the period colors every frame.

The intimacy that made Boyhood such an affecting experience takes a lighter, breezier tone here in the evocative family snapshots — weekend beach trips to Galveston; eating Frito Pies at the pool; a day at AstroWorld amusement park; the kids piled into the car singing along to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”; the girls consulting a Ouija board about their teenage crushes; or all of them fighting over the remote, with cooler-than-thou Vicky declaring the Apollo coverage “historically boring” and stating her preference for The Beverly Hillbillies.

But Linklater also captures the momentousness of the occasion as Mom and Dad sit glued to the set, their expressions conveying the immense pride of national achievement, a landmark human triumph to which not even the most cynical of the brood is immune. Black — who gave two of his best performances in Linklater’s School of Rock and Bernie — infuses the narration with gentle warmth, but also with the sense of awe that the Apollo 11 moon landing generated at the time, with more than 600 million people around the globe watching, and the certainty, at least for that moment, that anything was possible.

If Stan’s own fantastic “memories” of his secret moon mission become almost an afterthought to the real thing, they nonetheless provide a poetic, playful illustration of just how intense the impact of that milestone in space travel was on an impressionable young mind.

Linklater shot the live action on a green screen stage just before Covid lockdown in 2020 and has spent the past two years editing and working on the animation. It’s clearly a labor of love, a unique reflection on an unforgettable summer, inviting us to share in a moment of communal spirit which now seems to belong to another world.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)
Distribution: Netflix
Production companies: Detour, Submarine
Cast: Milo Coy, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Josh Wiggins, Sam Chipman, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Danielle Guilbot, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell, Jack Black
Director-screenwriter: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Mike Blizzard, Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix
Executive producer: John Sloss
Director of photography: Shane Kelly
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Animation production designer: Vincent Bisschop
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
Head of animation: Tommy Pallotta
Visual effects supervisor: Matthijs Joor
Casting: Vicky Boone

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 38 minutes