’Apollo 10 1/2’ Review: Richard Linklater Dreams a Memory of Space
In my earliest childhood memory, I’m three years old. I’m sitting on the couch in my family’s TV room. The sun is shining in through the window. My brother’s just been born, so it’s early October 1984, and everyone is doting on him. My father comes into the room, and hands me a new toy to keep me occupied: A Robin from Kenner’s Super Powers action figure line.
I don’t remember much else about my brother’s birth, or anything that happened in the three and a half years before it. I barely recall much of anything from my life before the age of 8 or so. But all these years later, I can see that whole scene so vividly in my mind; me sitting on or family’s reddish-brown couch, my dad handing me the brightly-colored blue and yellow card with the words “Super Powers” practically leaping off it; a free mini-comic tucked into the plastic blister holding the action figure. This whole scene remains so firmly etched in my mind that I sometimes wonder: Did it actually happen? I’ve dreamt this same moment, or some variation of it, a few times through the years. Could my mind have invented this entire scenario and then imagined it over and over until I simply believed it really took place?
The flimsy barrier between dream and memory, and the ways the former can sometimes feel even more real than the latter, is the subject of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood. One element of it is clearly a dream of Linklater’s, or at least a fantasy. In it, he follows an elementary school-aged boy named Stan (Milo Coy) as he is covertly recruited into the Apollo space program. Due to an engineering snafu, NASA built the Apollo capsule too small, you see. They need someone with child-sized proportions to test it on its maiden voyage to the Moon. Plucky young Stan is chosen to become the first boy in outer space.
Another director might have used this fanciful notion for a full-fledged adventure film. Linklater never indulges in any sort of manufactured drama, and in fact, Stan’s voyage to the Moon is a relatively small subplot in Apollo 10 1/2. Most of the movie is given over to the adult Stan (voiced by a friendly yet subdued Jack Black) as he recalls life in the Houston area circa the late 1960s. There isn’t really a narrative, or a problem to be solved. Stan simply recollects what it was like growing up in the shadow of the American space program. It’s a bit like watching a feature-length version of a man rambling over his old home movies.
That sounds desperately dull. But despite the lack of conflict, Apollo 10 1/2 is a charming and engrossing 95 minutes, mostly because of the way Linklater blends his memories and dreams of that period, and filters both of them through the medium of Rotoscoped animation, which produces images that are somehow both surreal and hyper-real all at once.
In live-action, the dream sequences would have been impossible to swallow and the mundane ’60s childhood stuff could have begun to feel tedious, a simple accounting of television shows and playground rituals and curious neighborhood characters. Instead, Apollo 10 1/2 becomes a guided tour through a great artist’s brain and formative years.
Linklater has never made a movie set in space before — his only other science-fiction film, A Scanner Darkly, also used the same Rotoscoping techniques — but he’s made plenty of movies about Apollo 10 1/2’s other subjects, namely childhood and the nature of dreams (Linklater’s first animated movie, Waking Life, was an even trippier tour through the subconscious). Here, he works in a sweeter, mellower key than we might expect; one imagines Linklater has told these stories before, perhaps for decades, which could be why they feel so real, regardless of whether Linklater dreamed them or lived them.
At first, I found myself waiting for Apollo 10 1/2 to ratchet up the tension around Stan’s journey to space, or to introduce some sort of villain or dilemma to complicate the film. Then I stopped looking for that sort of stuff and simply got lost in Linklater’s intricate recreation of Houston circa 1969. The details are so precise; the way, for example, he evokes the thrill of visiting the old Astroworld amusement park and going on its Alpine Sleigh Ride, might spark your own memories of going on exciting rides as a child. Or, perhaps, some of your dreams of those memories today. Whatever these ancient childhood incidents are, whether we invent them or endure them, Apollo 10 1/2 reminds us they are the things that transform us into the adults we inevitably become.