To explain why Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood (2022) is one of the best and one of the most necessary movies of the year, we need context. Humanity has engaged in violence and destruction ever since we understood what those two things are. Wars are waged on a daily basis, crime is committed on an hourly basis, and it’s all broadcasted on television like a reality show. But the kicker is that the onus is put on the common folk to “solve” these structural and global issues instead of those who are responsible for it i.e. world leaders. That creates a sense of confusion because anything you do won’t bring about real change. However, since thinking about how helpless you are in the grand scheme of things can make you feel inconsequential, you need to ground your existence and understand that you matter. The past two COVID-ridden years have amplified this sensation of helplessness. And in more ways than one, Apollo 10 ½ seems like an attempt to help you recontextualize your life.
Written, directed, and produced by Richard Linklater, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood follows a grown-up Stan (Jack Black) recounting the story of his life as a 10-year-old boy (played by Milo Coy) in 1969 Houston. Stan lives with his mom (Lee Eddy) who is a homemaker, his dad (Bill Wise) who is a NASA employee, and his siblings Vicky (Natalie L’Amoreaux), Steve (Josh Wiggins), Jana (Jessica Brynn Cohen), Greg (Sam Chipman), and Stephanie (Danielle Guilbot). While playing kickball with his schoolmates, Stan is recruited by two NASA employees, Kranz (Zachary Levi) and Bostick (Glen Powell) for a secret mission to go to the Moon. Why send a 10-year-old to the Moon and why keep it a secret? Well, because NASA messed up the calculations and built a lunar module that cannot fit a fully grown man. But they’ve to make sure that a trip to the Moon is possible before they send “actual” astronauts. And they can’t publicize the fact that they made a mistake. Hence, they need a kid smart enough to fit into the module and hence they need to keep it a secret.
It won’t be a spoiler to say that Stan’s story about secretly going to the Moon isn’t real. It is as real as Stanley Kubrick faking the Moon landing. But that doesn’t mean the borderline transcendental feeling he experiences, which is a distillation of Richard Linklater’s personal experience, up to the point NASA sends a man to the Moon isn’t real. He goes into vivid detail about the development of Houston, his relationship with his parents, siblings, and friends, the Vietnam war, pollution, and how African-Americans feel about spending millions on a trip to the Moon instead of directing it towards the betterment of their community. In doing so, he ponders the question that as a 10-year-old child, what is he supposed to do? Is he not supposed to goof around while his country’s leaders are bombing another country? Is he not supposed to simply vibe with a song and only listen to those with a political undercurrent? Is he not supposed to fantasize about going to the Moon because it does nothing to improve society? Or can he make mental notes of all that’s going on around him and live the life he’s supposed to live as a 10-year-old kid in a town on the cusp of technological evolution?
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Linklater’s interpretation of Apollo 10 ½ can be very different from his POV but given the time that we are living in right now, the movie seems like an effort to stop people from viewing their lives from a macroscopic perspective. That was one of the reasons behind sending a man to the Moon, wasn’t it? That it’ll give humanity a sense of scale and thereby stop them from resorting to violence. Quite the opposite happened and look where we are now. So, it’s important to sit and enjoy the dull, boring, and mundane aspects of our life because there is a certain charm, fun, and calmness that comes with that; three things that we need in spades. History is going to keep repeating itself. But your personal interactions, you noticing your grandparents’ quirks, your friend doing something ballistically stupid, watching a movie on the big screen for the first time or a show on the telly with your siblings, these will always remain unique to you and won’t be repeated. Unless you know how to time travel. So, maybe focus on the minutiae of your life, absorb them, and allow it to shape you in a positive way.
Coming to the non-philosophical aspects of Apollo 10 ½, this movie is meant to be viewed on the big screen because it looks so gorgeous and vibrant. The animation is quite similar to Linklater’s previous work in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), as in he shoots it digitally and then animates it using interpolated rotoscoping. But here, he limits the rotoscoping to the character animation and resorts to 2D animation to achieve all the necessary textures to realize Stan’s world i.e vintage period, comic book, newsreel documentary. He and the animators animate the movie in 2’s (for each second of animation, there are 12 new drawings or “frames”) to give it a retro, analog-esque feel. He apparently took inspiration from Saturday morning cartoons and allowed the animators to leave certain imperfections in the final print to give it a personalized, subjective look. And above all, Linklater told all of it from the child-like perspective of Stan, often warping the animation to give it a dream-like feel, thereby showing not just how Stan experienced those events, but also how he remembers them. As for the voice-acting, every single actor, from Coy to Levi is perfect. Simply perfect!
After several weeks of watching intense, blockbuster-level movies like The Batman (2022) and RRR (2022), in addition to feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in India and all around the globe, it’s satisfying to be cocooned in Linklater’s signature plot-less adventure. The way he finds rhythm in some of the most ordinary things ever and then allows you to search for your own meaning in it is so rare and hence should be celebrated. Yes, yes, you can say a lot of it is hyper-focused on suburban Whiteness and therefore doesn’t have a universal appeal. Well, as long as he and his work is inoffensive and not trampling on the lives of marginalized communities, I seriously don’t see a problem with him channeling his thoughts through his movies. So, please watch Apollo 10 ½: A Space Childhood and allow yourself to be consumed by its chill vibes.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Childhood will be streaming on Netflix from April 1, 2022
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Childhood Links: IMDb
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Zachary Levi, Jack Black, Glen Powell, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy, Danielle Guilbot