This review was originally published as part of Paste’s SXSW 2022 coverage.
Near the end of Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, Richard Linklater’s luscious rotoscope ode to the tail-end of the 1960s, the father of our young protagonist Stanley (Milo Coy) worries that his son slept through a historic event. “Even if he was asleep,” says Stanley’s mom (Lee Eddy), “he’ll one day think he saw it all.”
The magic trick that is memory serves as the basis of Apollo, a film that recalls Apollo 11 from the rose-colored perspective of Stan, a ten-year-old boy living in Houston—Linklater’s childhood stomping grounds—at the time of the mission. The film begins with two suited men pulling Stan aside at school and informing him that NASA accidentally built a spaceship that was too small for an adult to ride in. Given this, they’ll need Stan to perform a test run to the Moon instead of one of their highly trained adult astronauts.
What follows is a 90-minute, highly sentimental, kaleidoscopic examination of 1969, spliced with moments from the greatest fantasy of the Stanleys of the world: Traveling to space. Linklater doesn’t spare any detail of what life was like back then, nor does he worry about boring audiences by delving into the minutiae of it all. Grown-up Stanley (Jack Black), Apollo’s narrator, bounces confidently between descriptions of the monotonous games the neighborhood kids used to play, breakdowns of the plots of old black-and-white sci-fi shows, the conservative methodologies Stanley’s mom applies in making school lunches for her kids, the nuances of spending time with grandparents who lived through the Depression and everything in between.
The majority of the film follows a montage-like format, bouncing from one nostalgia-soaked moment to the next. Despite never quite allowing us to sit in one particular moment, though, the film never lags. Similarly, even though the whole thing is so intensely time and space-specific, it never feels inside baseball for those who’ve already lived it.
Much of this can be attributed to the film’s slick editing, courtesy of Linklater’s longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Action in Apollo dances seamlessly from one moment to the next like a high-energy music video. Adair’s editing masterfully mimics the sensation of childhood memory; even the most random of details—watching Janis Joplin chain smoke on the Dick Cavett show, a particular roller coaster at Astroworld—fit together like puzzle pieces. Everything feels equally important and even the scary stuff, like the imminent threat of chemical warfare, is painted in a sanguine varnish.
This sensation also stems from the film’s animation, directed by Tommy Pallotta, another longtime collaborator of Linklater’s. Not only is Apollo a wink back to Linklater’s older trips down memory lane like Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, but marks his first time playing with rotoscope animation since Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), two films that helped repopularize the style. Indeed, Apollo’s mannerisms are more realistic than most animated films, as the rotoscope technique requires that the animator draw over real actors. Simultaneously, the drawings look like they have been appropriated from a vintage sci-fi comic, adding to both the swiftness and wistfulness of it all.
Everything in the film that has to do with chronicling life in 1969 is so captivating on its own that one can’t help but wonder what Apollo would be like if it removed Stanley’s outer space subplot altogether. Indeed, Mission Apollo 10 ½ is the weakest part of the film, and, while it justifies the existence of a movie that is essentially a meandering nostalgia trip, it doesn’t do much to keep the plot moving forward. The segment is also mildly confusing when interspersed with Apollo 11, and the time spent wondering which mission we’re actually seeing ends up underselling the significance of the first steps on the Moon within the context of the film. Still, where Apollo succeeds, it really succeeds. It’s a stylish meditation on childhood that isn’t afraid to indulge in all the sentimentality that goes along with that. Almost 30 years after Dazed and Confused, Linklater is still reminding us exactly why childhood is a uniquely special thing.
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Stars: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Glen Powell, Zachary Levi, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalia L’Amoreaux, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, Danielle Guilbot
Release Date: March 13, 2022 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.