I’m a big Richard Linklater fan. The 61-year-old Texas-born director, screenwriter, and producer has one of the most eclectic filmographies out there. From his hangout classic “Dazed and Confused” to his critically acclaimed “Before” trilogy to his audacious “Boyhood”. I had a chance to meet and listen to Richard Linklater during an appearance at Arkansas Cinema Society’s Filmland event. Hearing him talk about his deep love for cinema, the inspiration that has helped shape his wide-ranging style, and his uniquely personal approach to filmmaking only solidified my appreciation for his body of work.
With all of that said, how on earth did Linklater’s latest movie nearly slip by me (It’s partly due to weak promotion, but that’s another write-up for another day)? “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” premiered March 13th at South by Southwest and now it is available to stream on Netflix. This animation/live-action hybrid once again sees Linklater venturing into new spaces while at the same time showing off many of his signatures – a sharp wit, a lights-out soundtrack, an amazing grasp of time and setting.
Born in 1960 near Houston, Linklater grew up in close proximity to NASA headquarters. It was a time when nearly every adult in his lively suburb worked for NASA, and the influence of the space program could be found in everything from used car commercials to playground equipment. Suddenly the prefix “astro-” became commonplace. There were the Houston Astros (formerly the Colt .45s), the Astrodome, AstroTurf, and even a theme park called AstroWorld. For these close families and tight-knit neighborhoods, space became synonymous with everyday life.
Linklater brings these intimate and heartfelt memories to life in “Apollo 10 1/2”, a time capsule of a movie set in the late 1960s. While it is certainly a celebration of the Apollo space missions and their impacts culturally, politically and personally, the film is much more an nostalgic and faithful portrait of a bygone era. A time of Jiffy Pop and RC Cola; The Archies and The Association; Admiral television sets and Sundazed Records. And while further out in the real world, Vietnam was festering and the Cold War was taking a new form, so many of the nation’s eyes were on the Space Race.
All of these things (and so much more) make their way into Linklater’s autobiographical film which beautifully braids his own childhood memories with a surprisingly tender youthful fantasy. Interestingly, there isn’t much in terms of plot. Instead, it plays more like a motion picture scrapbook and we’re ushered through it by a narrator named Stan (wonderfully voiced by Jack Black) who gazes back on his past with a full-hearted affection. “Let me tell you about life back then,” he says as he takes our hands and our imaginations on a trip down memory lane.
But scattered throughout these lovingly rendered flashbacks is a delightfully absurd tale – the kind that could only originate in the vivid imagination of a star-gazing 10-year-old. It starts one sunny afternoon at Ed White Elementary School in the small Houston suburb of El Lago, Texas.
Young Stan (voiced by Milo Coy) is approached by two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi). Somehow in their race to beat the Russians to the moon, NASA accidentally built their lunar module too small for an adult. After scouting Stanley both in the classroom and on the kickball court (because isn’t that where all young astronauts excel?), NASA believes him to be the perfect candidate for their mission. What mission you ask? To test their too-small module on the moon’s surface.
At first it’s a little hard to tell where Linklater is going with this light hearted side-story. But as it plays out in snippets the filmmaker’s vision becomes clearer. Just like everything else in his movie, it’s meant to emphasize what it was like growing up in that very specific place during that very specific era. For Stan, his five siblings, and his imperfect yet devoted parents (pitch-perfectly played by Lee Eddy and Bill Wise) it was a vastly different world than today’s, and Linklater’s knack for conveying such worlds really comes through.
Even the visual choices play into it. The strategic mix of rotoscope with 2D and 3D animation gives the film a dreamlike yet stunningly realistic quality, where the period’s defining colors and textures pop off the screen. Other touches add to the authenticity, such as digitally animating old live-action footage from television shows, movies, and newscasts. And it’s all bound together by nearly 50 smile-inducing, head-bobbing late 60s tunes from the likes of The Marketts, Cliff Nobles, and The T-Bones.
Sadly, “Apollo 10 1/2” hasn’t received much promotion from Netflix yet it’s a must-see, especially for fans of Linklater or anyone with the slightest attachment to the era. Will it play the same for younger audiences? Probably not. But while I wasn’t born until 1971, so many things in the film still echo back to my own childhood. And the sturdy connection to the 1960s provided to me by my parents only enriched my experience. So while this gorgeously animated, intensely detailed, nostalgia-soaked gem is clearly personal for Linklater, he won’t be the only one reflecting on their childhood after watching. “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is now streaming on Netflix.