Review by Sean Boelman
The films of Richard Linklater typically feel like they exist in some sort of alternate reality that is more fanciful, yet they still wonderfully capture what it means to be human. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is arguably his most quixotic yet, but it’s undeniably charming despite its overwhelming nostalgia at times.
This is a coming-of-age story set in Houston in 1969 against the backdrop of the Space Race, in which a kid is selected for a special secret space mission to test the moon landing module before the iconic Apollo 11 voyage. It’s a cute work of historical fiction, although it is the more common coming-of-age portion that resonates more than the fictitious moon mission.
The narrative structure that the movie has is a bit inconsistent, but there is certainly a level of charm to it. Most of the film is told through a narration, voiced by Jack Black in a very funny if somewhat out-of-place performance, that accompanies the events of the movie. And at times, the narration becomes obnoxious, like several lists name-dropping a bunch of names in clear nostalgia bait.
How Linklater weaves in the socioeconomic context of the time is really fascinating. Obviously, there are some missed opportunities here — the Civil Rights movement ended a year before the film was set, and yet it doesn’t really explore the idea of this post-Civil Rights American society — but as a portrait of the issues facing white suburbia at the time, it’s interesting.
That said, it is easy to get endeared to this middle-class family, if only because of the universality with which Linklater writes his movie. Obviously, this world of NASA scientists is highly specific, but Linklater taps into that feeling that we all had as a kid of wanting to explore the unknown, and this is what makes the film stand out.
Interestingly enough, Linklater goes with a much smaller cast here than he did in his previous animated project, A Scanner Darkly. In addition to Black’s narration, there are performances from Zachary Levi and Glen Powell. Those are the only A-listers in the movie, but Black does a significant majority of the heavy lifting here, for better or worse. He overshadows Milo Coy, who’s actually really good in his performance as the younger protagonist when he is actually given the room to do his thing.
The animation style here is absolutely gorgeous, much the same as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. The contrast of the detailed, realistic characters against the almost impressionistic backgrounds is pretty wonderful. And though one could expect no less from Linklater, the soundtrack is full of absolute jams.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is full of references and homages, and it’s a bit cutesy, but it’s hard not to have your heart warmed by its childhood optimism. It’s the type of good, wholesome family content that will light up your day.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is screening at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 11-19.