Apollo 10 ½ Reeks of Nostalgia for an Overly Familiar Time

Richard Linklater’s latest autobiographical film, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, is a doting tribute to middle-class family life in the suburbs of Houston. Good luck making it through the whole unbearably sentimental movie in one sitting.

Apollo 10 ½ is a doting tribute to middle-class family life in the suburbs of Houston — where director Richard Linklater grew up — around the time of the Apollo 11 moon launch of 1969. (Netflix)

I predict you’ll never be more tempted in your life to say, “Okay, boomer,” and walk away than when you’re an hour into watching the Richard Linklater movie Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, currently screening on Netflix.

This animated film, made with digital rotoscoping and more old-school 2D animation effects combined, lasts just ninety-eight minutes, but if you make it through the whole movie in one sitting, congratulations on your staying power. And don’t believe the marketing, which will tell you that this is a film about a fourth grader who gets drafted by NASA to test out a spaceship mistakenly built too small for an adult astronaut and who ultimately becomes the first person to land on the moon. That sounds okay, but it’s a mere framing device to lure you into this doting tribute to middle-class family life in the suburbs of Houston — where Linklater grew up — around the time of the Apollo 11 moon launch of 1969.

At age sixty-two, writer-director-producer Linklater isn’t old enough to be as droolingly nostalgic as this autobiographical film shows him to be, but I guess he’s just old at heart. This look back at a lightly fictionalized version of his own childhood is so slow, so sentimental, so in love with old-timey mores and attitudes and behaviors that it’s hard to bear. Linklater’s occasional acknowledgment that there were possibly unfortunate aspects of the world he knew then — for example, the section about how corporal punishment was a widely accepted practice that was regarded phlegmatically by the kids getting regular thrashings from everybody, from parents to teachers to neighbors — only makes it worse. His admiration for that world is so manifest that he might as well be an addled grandpa insisting, “I got beat all the time, and I turned out fine!”

It doesn’t help that 1950s culture in America just kept right on going in white, middle-class suburbs, so that 1969 is still essentially the 1950s for this Linklater-ish family, except for the occasional hippie sighting on the local college campus or the new Beatles record with drug references. Otherwise, it’s still big families — this one has six kids — featuring breadwinning dads going to work and moms staying home, serving bologna-and-lettuce sandwiches on white bread for lunch, while children make up their own wholesome games for entertainment out on the carefully tended front lawns.

Oh, and don’t forget, the TV shows were good then! There’s a long, impassioned celebration of the vast array of television shows then airing new episodes or else in that new thing called “syndication” — Dark Shadows and Gunsmoke and Bewitched and I Love Lucy and so on. The snack foods were great, too — and the dodgeball games on the playground — and the way kids got to ride in the back of pickup trucks with no concerns about their safety — and, well, just everything.

It was a veritable golden age.

It’s amazing to read in interviews that Linklater doesn’t think he’s being nostalgic in any “simple and treacly” way, because “I hate [nostalgia] as a cultural commodity, so much. . . . ” Yet a fonder, less critical view of his own childhood cultural experience would be hard to find.

Tiny threads of countercultural opinions show up in a cursory fashion. In a film that’s passionately invested in the greatness of the NASA space program, there’s a very short interlude about those who didn’t think it was so damn great. A black man being interviewed on television as the family watches says, “Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”

That’s the same interview and quote that appeared in the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, where that line of argument takes up a generous amount of screen time, strongly featuring Gil Scott-Heron’s contextualizing poem, “Whitey on the Moon.” But in Apollo 10 ½, this brief moment of refusal is gone before you know it, after Stan’s oldest sister — the cool one who likes rock music and takes an interest in the larger world — says, “Right on,” and Stan’s father, a crew-cut straight-arrow NASA employee who manages shipping and receiving, responds with an angry grimace.

Of course, there are good qualities to the film, too. It’s well made overall, and it features Jack Black, returning to the Linklater fold many years after the terrific School of Rock and doing a nice but subdued job narrating the film as a grown-up Stanley looking back on his space-obsessed kid self.

The formal style of the film is arresting, with Linklater returning to an updated variant on the rotoscoping technique he used in 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly. The look of the media-within-media is especially good, because the family watches television constantly, so Johnny Cash or Walter Cronkite or Dark Shadows or whatever is airing has an evocatively sketchier, more abstract look in contrast to the sharp details of “real life.” As Linklater himself puts it:

With animated Walter Cronkite being on the TV, it’s like, “That’s him, but it’s not. It’s my memory of him.” . . . When it’s animated, you’re like, “Oh, that feels like slightly fuzzier.” It’s him. It’s his voice, but it feels closer to the imaginative realm where memory works.

Linklater said in an interview that he decided on this animated style for Apollo 10 ½ because he wanted to achieve an old-fashioned 2D look, what his longtime animation expert Tommy Pallotta described as “Saturday morning cartoons meets anime.” Perhaps it’s only to my eye, but I find that rotoscoping in general, even when it’s combined with the “more organic style” of 2D animation effects, tends to have a somber, adult quality to it, dipping occasionally into the disturbing effects of the uncanny valley that are nothing like the cheerful, fantastically elastic Saturday morning cartoons I recall. There are some shots of the boy Stan in the space capsule on his fantasy mission that are truly beautiful and eerie as well — he looks both like a realistically rendered boy and somehow like a solemn alien boy-man gazing out alone on planet Earth from the vast reaches of space.

This isn’t the first time Linklater has combined a formally interesting approach with a long, loving gaze at a boy in the process of growing up — Boyhood, anyone? But in the case of Apollo 10 ½, you have to have a huge appetite for the details of the already-too-familiar era Linklater is covering to want to stick with this film. It really represents a follow-up to Linklater’s truly nauseating 2016 wallow in nostalgia, Everybody Wants Some!!, another somewhat fictionalized autobiographical celebration of himself and his appalling culture. In that case, the story is centered on a young baseball-playing Texas jock starting college in 1980. That film would have you believe that Linklater and his fellow strutting athletes, all “big men on campus,” were universally beloved of everyone there, from theater department nerds to punk rockers.

In fact, it’s scary to think that Linklater might be working backward through his own life — and that he’ll arrive at his early-1960s toddlerhood next and celebrate that in conservative old-guy fashion in the same numbing detail. Then I guess his parents’ 1950s youths would come after — probably ending at the point when Linklater was “merely a gleam in his father’s eye,” as they used to say in those supposedly glorious old times.