Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood

Dubbed Apollo 10 ½, the mission will test the moon landing while everyone else thinks that Stanley is away at summer camp.

Prolific director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Boyhood, School of Rock) has always had a side-hustle of unique rotoscope animated films like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. In rudimentary terms, the actors perform in live action and then are “traced” over as characters and backgrounds are filled in with animation, giving it a breezy, moving, live action feel combined with flickering animation. Linklater’s previous animated films are mostly trippy and heavy, but that is reversed in Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. Instead of the rotoscope animation giving the film a clinical, detached vibe like Scanner Darkly, Apollo 10 ½ feels like experiencing a warm memory. A lot of the film is about coasting on memories as the narrator relates their childhood summer, but it looks neat and falls halfway between a dream and a documentary.

Stanley (Milo Coy) is a kid in 1969, watching the world unfold on his three-channel antenna TV. He lives with five other siblings, his Mom (Lee Eddy) and Dad (Bill Wise). His entire town is NASA crazy as all the ads are trumpeting tenuous connections to the space race, with Dad working as a supply management supervisor for NASA. One day, Stanley is approached by two mysterious men in black, Bostick (Glen Powell) and Kranz (Zachary Levi) for a top-secret assignment as the first kid to land on the moon because the space capsule NASA has built is too small. Dubbed Apollo 10 ½, the mission will test the moon landing while everyone else thinks that Stanley is away at summer camp. So, when the actual Apollo 11 moon landing happens, it will go off without a hitch without anyone knowing that Stanley was the first kid on the moon.
The set-up is fun and weird as kid Stanley sits down with the mysterious NASA spooks. With constant warm voiceover from Adult Stanley provided by Jack Black, it’s basically like a spy caper intruding on a slice of life flashback story. After he starts his training, the film goes back to vignettes about life in the suburban late ‘60s. Vignettes is almost entirely what the film is about which is a bit discombobulating. The movie was promised as being an alternative history moon landing and the secret mission of this historic kid who was forever unknown, but pretty much almost all of it is about being a kid in 1969 and how they related to the world by watching TV and going to the movies. It isn’t exactly a disappointment as the movie is a great nostalgia machine to a time and place, but it is a little unexpected.
With all the realistic scenes about living in that time, what is the point of having Stanley land on the moon and nobody knew it. Is Stanley crazy and has a constant diet of TV space programs, both real and fictional, has completely fried his brain and his memories of his childhood? The answer the film sort of provides is that he watched the moon landing while in a half-asleep stupor where he thought he was the one on the moon. As one of the parents says as they put him to bed, “You know how memory works”. It makes the film a meditation on half-remembered memory and what is real. Stanley probably didn’t land on the moon but it has all sort of merged.
Black’s narration as the Adult Stanley is constant but it isn’t high pitched crazy like Black typically is. Instead, it’s smooth and wry, making observations about how casually dangerous every day life was. For example, all six kids are stuck into the back of a pickup truck while Dad drinks beers while driving like no bother. Some of Adult Stanley’s observations about physical punishment at school are delivered in a “oh, well, that was the way” vocal shrug. The movie is a series of moments in small town life as he talks about sci-fi TV shows and rock songs on the radio. Coy as the Kid Stanley is very upbeat and likable. The scary world of civil unrest in the ‘60s is just something abstractly talked about on TV, while the most important thing is battling in the household for control of the knob. Eddy as Mom is constantly chain smoking and nagging, while Wise as the Dad has various frugal methods of stretching a buck. As the NASA agents, Powell and Levi seem like space race drama characters plopped into a nostalgic throwback piece. They have some good line deliveries; Powell has a great bit where he tries to explain that the capsule was too small, and Levi seems like he’s been monitoring Stanley his whole short life for this specific mission.

The rotoscoping animation for the historical footage works well, giving it a dream-like quality and making something like footage of the moon landing that has been seen for decades seem new. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood uses its animation style to filter 1969 into a hazy, fuzzy recollection of a “simpler” time as Stanley watches the moon landing in a half-remembered dream state. As far as memories go, and if he was up there or not, for this kid it is essentially the truth.  
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood
4 stars
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Glen Powell, Zachary Levi and Jack Black

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