It’s a minor crime that Richard Linklater’s latest film, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, has been released on Netflix a week after the Oscars when it should’ve been competing at them. Linklater, one of American cinema’s most beloved directors, the man behind at least four all-time classics, deserves better than this.
It’s almost as if Netflix has some sort of an Oscars quota that it exhausted with the likes of The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up. It could actually have come down to something as arbitrary as a bunch of executives sitting inside a boardroom, deliberating on which films make the cut. If this was indeed the case, then I understand why the animated Apollo 10½ would be low-priority—not because it’s inferior to those two other films, but because it is very difficult to explain, and therefore, difficult to market.
With no plot to speak of and a tone that gracefully balances wistful nostalgia and slice-of-life drama, the film plays its fantastical opening moments so straight that innocent old me took them at face value. It is in those opening scenes that we’re introduced to our protagonist Stan, the titular 10-and-a-half-year-old, who lives with his parents and five siblings in Houston, Texas, at the height of the space race in the 1960s. One day, Stan is approached at his school playground by two men in black.
They pull him aside and tell him that due to some error, the lunar module that NASA had been building for its first manned moon mission is smaller than what they’d originally planned. And to save face, they’re going to have to secretly find and train a kid who’d be able to fit inside it. The two men, played by Zachary Levi and Glen Powell, tell Stan that they’ve been observing him, and thanks to his good grades and strong performance on the kickball pitch, he’s been selected as the first astronaut to set foot on the moon.
As Stan begins his covert mission—he’s been instructed to not utter a word of this to his family and friends—Linklater freezes the frame, and guides us towards an extended flashback sequence that lasts about an hour. It is in this hour that Linklater, along with his old buddy Jack Black (who voices a wry adult Stan), proceeds to unleash the most heartfelt stretch of whimsical filmmaking that I’ve seen in a long time. And I don’t even have any particular affection for the 60s.
Linklater, however, clearly does. Apollo 10½ is partially inspired by his own childhood in Houston, growing up at a time when everybody seemed to be involved in some capacity in NASA. And this is perhaps why the details that he is able to capture about that era feel so authentic, and not just in terms of historical accuracy. Because the entire film is narrated by an adult Stan, it has a warm nostalgic tone that Hollywood blockbusters can only dream of evoking. This movie should be a lesson to the people behind the latest Spider-Man and Harry Potter films. True nostalgia doesn’t simply remind you of particular moments from the past; it reminds you of what life used to be. It captures existence, and simply cannot be diluted to celebrity cameos and catchphrases.
And certainly, despite a war raging in Vietnam and a civil rights movement brewing on home turf, the adult Stan can only look back fondly at this childhood. His fantasies about becoming an astronaut are juxtaposed with the mundanity of his day-to-day life. Stan remembers eating frozen sandwiches for lunch, and begrudgingly taking out the trash because he was the youngest. He remembers his neighbour, who’d spend his post-work hours smoking cigars in his garage; he remembers inhaling toxic fumes and watching horror movies at the drive-in. One of his grandmothers was a sweet old lady who used to take them to watch The Sound of Music. Stan’s other grandmother was a conspiracy theorist who believed that JFK never died. The specificity is just a ruse; the universality is what truly sells it.
This isn’t the first time that Linklater has captured the strange beauty of a suburban existence, nor is this the first time that he has attempted an animated feature. He is, in typical fashion, an understated master at both. And Apollo 10½ is right up there among his best.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
Director – Richard Linklater
Cast – Milo Coy, Jack Black, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell
Rating – 4.5/5