Apollo 10 1/2 is a difficult film to describe but a unique pleasure to experience. A cinematic essay, a reminisce and a daydream, all at the same time, it is more than anything, a chance for director Richard Linklater to ruminate on his childhood in Houston, Texas.
If you’ve seen any of Linklater’s films, especially Dazed and Confused, and its sequel, Everybody Wants Some, you know how effective the director can be when dealing with his past. While Apollo 10 1/2 doesn’t reach those same heights–or the heights of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord— it does display the same virtues that made those movies click. With an eye for detail, an ear for sound and a feel for texture, Linklater has crafted an animated remembrance of childhood steeped in warmth and nostalgia, humor and honesty, grace and specificity.
The story opens with Stan (Milo Coy) being asked by government agents to become the first person to land on the moon. But no sooner does he upchuck during a G-force simulation than adult Stan (Jack Black) hijacks the narrative and describes what life was like for children in the 1960’s, at a time when parents let their offspring run wild in yards, streets, parking lots, movie theaters and bowling alleys, free to develop their own habits and traits.
As with his previous autobiographical features, Linklater ditches the plot for a mosaic of meandering, laugh-out-loud moments. Stan goes through all the things Linklater went through as a child. He plays baseball in the summer, prank calls people with his siblings and hands dad a six-pack as they drive to the beach. There’s a lot of jokes about how unsafe things used to be (remember cigarettes?) but there’s never any sense of danger. Even as Vietnam rages on television and America prepares for Russia, Stan goes about his life of biking, hiking, swimming, eating, hanging out and dreaming of space.
These moments are witnessed from a child’s perspective, seen through the rails of a banister or from extreme low angle shots, which mimic an adult remembering a childhood point of view. The adolescent perspective highlights the uncertainty of youth, the feeling that something exciting could happen at any moment, around any corner or behind any bend.
Linklater and cinematographer Tommy Pallotta shot the film in rotoscope (in which animators trace over motion picture footage) with 2-D lenses bringing a lyrical quality to the Madam George-style vignettes. Stan’s favorite bands, from Pink Floyd to Buffalo Springfield, are presented over these images to add a layer of depth to each frame. Stan uses music to process the world around him: a montage of space exploration is set to The Age of Aquarius by Fifth Dimension. The rest of the soundtrack features hits from The Monkees, while dad hums a memorable rendition of Wichita Lineman.
Every piece of Apollo 10 1/2 –from the songs, to the places, to the cars and toys– are strands of Linklater’s memory laid out for the viewer not just to inspect but to experience. It’s the atmosphere that endures: the fireworks on the 4th of July, the games on the back porch, the adventures on the front lawn. It’s a stroll down memory lane you won’t soon forget.