A Brief Love Letter to Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
It may come as no surprise to you that I was not born prior to 1969. As a child who was born twenty years later in 1989, my memories of the Apollo 11 moon landing were crafted from history lessons in primary school, and, years later, colored with the delightful Stanley Kubrick conspiracy theory (among several other conspiracy theories). Looking back at the event from an outsider’s perspective, one heavily coated with pop culture, it’s difficult to connect with the fact it ever truly happened at all; especially considering that man hasn’t been back on the moon since 1972.
But in the course of those two eventful years, six missions did land men on the moon, and the children of that time were filled with a passion for exploration and knowledge, one that clearly bled into their very own hopes and dreams. Richard Linklater’s recent Netflix release, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, is a semi-autobiographical recollection of how it felt to be a kid at the time of the first moon landing, amid many other timely historical events such as the tumultuous friction of the Vietnam War juxtaposed against the carelessness of parental supervision (or lack thereof). While this specific subject matter covered a time I was not around to see, I couldn’t help but be transported back to my own childhood of playing in the street, fighting with my siblings over the remote, and fantasizing I was a local detective, always on the verge of cracking open a new case. With Apollo 10½, Linklater, while documenting a fixed span of time, has managed to capture a universal feeling of nostalgia, one that can easily permeate every generation of people. By coloring the moon landing through the eyes of his protagonist, an adult named Stan, narrating his memories from when he was a 10½ year old in 1969, Linklater paints an even more believable picture of the times than any historical records have ever imprinted on me.
As a filmmaker, Linklater frequently returns to themes of childhood, the passing of time, and the question of purpose in order to craft a connection between artist and audience, and Apollo 10½ delivers on that relationship. It can easily be considered a companion piece to his prior work like Boyhood and Waking Life in that Linklater is also mining the gray area between process and product. In Apollo 10½, the adult narration of Stan (provided by legendary voice talent, and School of Rock / Bernie collaborator, Jack Black) introduces the audience to the world of Houston, TX in 1969: a town dominated by its inhabitants’ relationship to NASA and the space program (something Linklater also experienced as a child). The use of recollection of the events of that summer, and the months prior, helps to paint a picture of Stan and his family that can be viewed as fact or fiction, which adds to the film’s relatability even further. We all have memories of our childhoods that may or may not have happened, but in adulthood, the only thing that matters is the recollection of said events.
Without delving too deeply into the specifics, Stan recounts his childhood prior to the moon landing in one defined metric: he single-handedly tested the specifics for the Apollo 11 mission because he was recruited by NASA to test-run their “slightly smaller than intended” test module prior to the Apollo 11 run (hence Apollo 10½). Stan is so convinced he played an integral part in the moon landing that he even recalls having to keep the classified mission secret from his family, leaving the actual Apollo 11 moon landing memory less than memorable: one he would even doze through. Linklater, through Stan, renders the factual evidence of the time nearly obsolete by his perception of the reality of the time, leaving the audience to also perceive time and memory through the lens of retrospection.
What best aids Linklater in this realm between fiction and reality is his use of animation. Using a different application from his previous two animated works (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), where he filmed the films prior to post-production and animated overtop of the footage using the rotoscope technique, Apollo 10½ was filmed in front of a greenscreen. So, while the two aforementioned films were entirely rotoscoped, Apollo 10½’s people were filmed while its landscapes and buildings were completely digitally reimagined. This helps lend to its out-of-this-world believability. For instance, Houston’s very own Six Flags AstroWorld has been closed since 2005, but in Apollo 10½ (both on-screen and in-story), AstroWorld is still alive and well. Nobody discredits the truthful history of AstroWorld’s closing, but in order to recreate the location, Linklater no longer relied on the physical space still in existence in order to animate it on screen. His animation team has grown since Darkly’s 2006 animated venture, but also because he’s dealing in the realm of retrospection, he no longer needs to work in a realistic, tangible space. Is this, perhaps, sounding more and more like a fictionalized moon landing? (I doubt that’s Linklater’s intention… perhaps my own personal history with the moon landing is starting to come into play…maybe “Stan” would like to weigh in…)
Regardless, my favorite aspect of Apollo 10½ is the focus on the Childhood of it all. As mentioned above, I didn’t find the specific late 60s of the plot to be a deterrent to my interaction with the overall piece and found myself frequently understanding exactly what the children were going through. Maybe it was because I came from a family of four children with limited means, or maybe it’s because I didn’t have a smartphone until 2007 (when I was a freshman in college), that I so identified with the children within the film, but I distinctly remember the joys of being “unplugged” and free to run around in the street, in the back of pickup trucks, and rampant in the neighborhood, all without the ability to “make contact” with adults until dinnertime. Perhaps that’s also what makes the connection to reality so tangible. To live was to live in reality as opposed to “in the cloud” or on the web. Although animated, Apollo 10½ feels more tangible than many live-action films in its ability to conjure fully realized memories of childhood, whether that be from 1969 or the mid-’90s (and hopefully from the 2010s on…although I don’t have much of a connection to that generation as of yet).
I cannot speak to the scientific accuracy of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (especially with how fictionalized Stan’s account is - although it does sound fairly accurate), but what I can speak to is how the film made me feel. Linklater, Stan, and his entire family made me yearn for a simpler time, one in which the future seemed brighter, my adulthood seemed less an obligation, and my biggest question of the day was which ice cream flavor I wanted. If these qualities seem appealing to you, I encourage you to give Apollo 10½ a shot. Not only is the animation beautiful and the themes thought-provoking, but as any film made about the end of the 60s, it’s also got a bangin’ soundtrack. As a film lover, you never forget the first films to feature music from the 60s, and for me and countless others of my age bracket, movies like Forrest Gump and Now and Then were formative in my music appreciation. I can only hope that Apollo 10½ can hold that formative space in someone’s life. For that matter, I hope Apollo 10½ becomes one of those films for someone in their formative years now, scrolling through Netflix just as I used to browse my local video rental store, as a film that helps to instill a love for experimental animation and Linklater just as Waking Life did for me back in the early 2000s.
Thanks to Linklater’s early work and my absolute obsession with his Before trilogy, I’ll always err on the side of support for Linklater’s artistic endeavors, but it's also rewarding to connect to his work on a genuine level. He has seemed to have missed his window for a fourth Before film, but his continued interest in approaching film through time (like his work over 12 years in Boyhood and his upcoming 20-year project, Merrily We Roll Along) will always keep me engaged in his method of filmmaking; always approaching a project through the lens of memory and growth. Just as Stan does, it’s easy to romanticize the past, but in doing so we can provide a salve for a troubling future, one in which we’re faced with the fear of the world not providing a space for us. Watching Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood feels like a warm hug, and despite its 50-year difference, it offers a hopeful outlook on life. If only for a few hours, Linklater offers a welcome reminder to take a trip to our youth to fully appreciate how far we’ve come, no matter how many small steps it’s taken along the way.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.