Over the last three-plus decades, filmmaker Richard Linklater has made 20 movies covering a number of genres, a few of which he likes to revisit. The most notable of these is the “Before” franchise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, which follows a couple over the space of almost two decades wherein they meet, get hitched, break up, and find a tolerable middle ground as friends. Linklater’s breakout feature stoner-comedy “Dazed and Confused” (1993) found a bookend in 2016 with “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Linklater was nominated for multiple Oscars for “Boyhood” (also featuring Hawke), a film that took a dozen years to shoot, mostly because he wanted to present the performers aging naturally. He’s doing this again with his next project “Merrily We Roll Along,” the second film adaptation of the musical stage play by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. Linklater will spend 20 years on that production. This is a clear sign of extreme patience, artistic dedication, OCD, mad genius, or all of the above.
Linklater’s 3rd ‘Rotoscope’ Movie
“Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood” is Linklater’s third foray into something called rotoscoping. It’s a process whereby a live-action film is shot and retouched in postproduction to make it look like animation. Every frame is hand-painted by illustrators, and the result is reality as viewed through a prism or looking glass. It worked perfectly the first time Linklater did it in the dreamy and atmospheric “Waking Life” (2001), not quite as much in the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) and, unfortunately, even less so with “Apollo 10 1/2,” not so much due to the technical execution (which is superb) but rather for the often-undisciplined screenplay.
The concept itself is interesting and original. The lead character Stan (Milo Coy) is a preteen, the youngest of six and the only member of his family born in the 1960s. Like many people in the Houston area during this time, Stan’s dad (Bill Wise) works for NASA—not as a cool and admired astronaut but instead as a boring statistician, something Stan views as patently lame. His mom (Lee Eddy) favors polyester chinos and knotted blouses, and is rarely seen without a cigarette dangling from her lips. She also dislikes hippies.
Stan’s siblings (no surprise) taunt and rib him, and his upbringing is about what every kid who grew up in the suburbs during that era experienced. They played outside until dark, destroyed some clothing, had a few broken bones, and all of the electronic stimulation was provided by three channels on a terrestrial tube TV (via rabbit-ear antennae) for two hours a night, max. It was pure torture by today’s standards.
A Simpler Time
This portion of the film is admittedly engrossing as it paints a simpler time in the United States, when optimism and capitalism reigned supreme and neighborhoods were tightly knit communities where everyone knew each other. Had Linklater presented this at the very start, it would have provided a much better lead-in for the final 30 minutes, but instead he bookended it with the supposed principal plot.
The movie opens with Stan, a model student and talented athlete, being approached by two ominous G-Men types (Zachary Levi and Glen Powell) dressed as “Men in Black” extras who offer him a dream assignment. The lunar module for the upcoming Apollo 11 launch is “too small” to accommodate grown men, and they need just the right-sized young man to do a covert “test run” to the moon.
In the middle of his training, while Stan is experiencing a “technical yawn,” the frame freezes and the older Stan (narrator Jack Black) begins waxing nostalgic about his glorious childhood. Wisely avoiding the many exaggerated voices that often mar his live-action performances, Black instead adopts a lower-register, slight Texas twang. This would have all worked out fine had Black been given less copy to read, but the ever-present voice-over eventually becomes more of a distraction than an infrequent storytelling aid.
To Linklater’s immense credit, younger members of the audience will have a difficult time determining whether Stan is dreaming what is unfolding on the screen or if it actually happened. Adversely, the movie’s PG-13 rating is entirely warranted as some of the material—the report of daily U.S. casualties in Vietnam and the nationwide riots of 1968, for instance—is intense and really has no place in what is, otherwise, an upbeat and inspiring family film.
The Everyman Filmmaker
Unlike many filmmakers, both past and present, Linklater comes with no lofty airs and likely doesn’t consider himself to be an “artiste,” but rather an everyman storyteller whose rough edges aren’t and never will be fully hewn. Given Linklater’s age (60) and the fact that he’s from Houston, it’s a good bet that there are some, if not many, autobiographical elements included in the story and, as such, “Apollo 10 1/2” is his most personal movie to date.
What throws the production into positive territory is the accurate recollection of that magical evening in July of 1969 when 650 million people around the globe put aside any and all of their ideological, religious, and territorial differences and watched Neil Armstrong take mankind’s first step on the moon. It might be the closest that so many souls the world over will ever come to being unified.
‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell, Bill Wise, Lee Eddy
Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: April 1, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5