We accidentally built the lunar module a little too small. But we’re not going to let that set us back.
Reminiscing about the past, back to that time in your life when everything just seemed perfect. Those days that sort of all melt together in your hazy thoughts, a few golden years where it seems there’s nothing but good memories, redesigned in your brain as time passes to become something almost fantastical. An adventure you’ve written for yourself where everything goes right, nothing but hot summers and warm smiles, centered around those little milestones and peripheral moments that define the age of your childhood. When you’re young, the world moves a thousand times faster than you can ever keep up with it, a whirlwind of everything around you constantly shifting and changing. You don’t quite have the context to process it all so you just accept it for what it is, absorbing it all like a sponge and waiting for the day it all makes a little more sense. One day, you’ll look back and maybe it’ll become a little easier to parse through it all, to understand the fantasy you crafted or to chuckle at just how silly it all seems in retrospect.
We’ve all done it, just sat down and thought back to those shimmering years where it all felt so perfect, but few of us have the resources or drive to turn it into a feature length rotoscope animated film that defines and recaptures our childhoods through the voice of Jack Black. Richard Linklater, of course, has done exactly that by creating Apollo 10 1/2, a golden drop of sun-soaked nostalgia to his early years growing up in Houston in the 1960s. On the surface, it’s a charming and fascinating exploration, for one of contemporary cinema’s greatest storytellers to weave the tale of America’s race to the Moon through the eyes of a wide-eyed and persistently grinning child, but the film never quite lives up to the promises of its premise and construction.
In a filmography littered with the passage of time, Linklater has systematically explored all angles of temporal filmmaking, from the last day of school in Dazed and Confused (1993) or the first weekend before college starts in Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), to the 18 year journey of Jesse and Celine in the Before trilogy or the 12 years of childhood documented in Boyhood (2014). This persistent thematic desire always seems to be pushing towards some final catharsis, as if one day Linklater’s dissection of the human experience through the lens of time will one day reveal some grand truth. If nothing else, it’s all in our heads, the way each of his films lingers in your mind and allows you to ruminate on your own existence, your own experiences with time and memory, to discover your own grand truth. But that feeling persists, awakened repeatedly each time you watch one of his films, each time a new one is released. It’s always cathartic filmmaking, heartwarming and melancholy interwoven in a way that feels impossible. Here, though it feels as though it still has those same desires to push towards some ineffable cinematic catharsis through the nostalgic passage of time, the central drive seems to have wandered far off course as it traipses aimlessly, staring starry-eyed at the moon above.
Apollo 10 1/2’s basic premise is simple enough, a young boy named Stan growing up in the midst of the space race in Houston is recruited by NASA to pilot a secret test mission to the Moon in a lunar lander that they accidentally built a little too small, and his journey training and preparing for the landing is told simultaneously alongside a vibrant reminiscing of the normal, everyday life that surrounded him at the time. As the Stan’s adventures begin accompanied by the voice of his older self (Jack Black), it seems as though it’s setting up to release into a more straightforward narrative, but these narrated beginnings never give way to anything more, it is simply the film, and though it leads with the promise of the absurdist childhood fantasy of being recruited by NASA and traveling to the moon, it spends far more time in the periphery of that than it actually spends within it. Eventually, you come to understand that this is all the film is, a flowery dose of nostalgia, just a picture book being read to you about a life that’s too specific to feel familiar and too generalized to feel tied to.
As it draws to a close, it’s clear there’s something there, that familiar feeling of lingering desire to recollect your own childhood, to think of how your life was formed around pivotal moments that maybe you weren’t even quite there for, that it’s all just a hazy memory and we fill in the gaps until we’ve idealized our own past, and that maybe that’s how it is for everyone. There’s a warmth in it that only Linklater can generate, and it’s as wonderful as ever, but the experience in the midst of watching the film tedious and lifeless, far from the punk rock, child-like joy of School of Rock (2003) or the deeply human beauty of Boyhood. It falls disappointingly short of what has always felt like truly impossible filmmaking, instead a messy jumble, a loosely pieced together time period without aim or purpose. Even if you’re asleep, you might as well have seen it all.