Cinema is definitely facing an uncertain future. Art house theaters in particular continue to struggle under the weight of the ongoing pandemic. Meanwhile, many critically acclaimed films produced by Netflix, such as Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, received an extremely limited theatrical release, or none at all. That’s truly unfortunate, because Apollo 10 ½ was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2022.
Written and directed by the Austin-based Indie filmmaker Richard Linklater, and inspired by his childhood experiences in the flatlands of Texas around the time of the first moon landing, Apollo 10 ½ is a fondly remembered slice of Americana rendered in rotoscope, a process that converts live action film footage into animation. Linklater’s proxy is Stan, voiced by Jack Black, who, as an adult, narrates an affectionate remembrance of what it was like living through one of the biggest generational shifts in American history, when the promise of a utopian future predicated on space-age scientific breakthroughs was tempered by social upheavals.
The “10 ½” in the title refers to Stan’s age during that period, but it also refers to a fantasy moon landing that he signs up for between Apollo 10 and Apollo 11. Stan’s lunar mission, which is sparsely interwoven, serves as a clever and historically accurate reminder of the rigorous training involved in becoming an astronaut. Mostly, though, Apollo 10 ½ is about the fun of growing up in a big family during the baby boom era when there was never any shortage of siblings or age-appropriate neighbors to play with. Every free moment was seemingly filled with pre-digital entertainment: movies, TV shows, pop music, front yard games, board games, pinball games, and more movies, because, after all, Stan is a stand-in for the filmmaker.
The warm humor of Apollo 10 ½ springs organically from the absurdities of the time. Linklater delights in giving us examples of how personal safety and looking after others was a concept that hadn’t quite risen to the forefront of most people’s minds. He shows us a parking lot littered with drink can pull-tabs that act like razor wire on bare feet, children shooting flaming balls of fire at one another during a Roman candle war, and Stan’s dad enjoying a couple of cold beers on a hot Texas afternoon – while driving his station wagon packed full of kids, which was perfectly legal by the relaxed standards of the time. And then there were the early environmental red flags, such as family outings to the beach invariably concluding with the ritual cleaning of blackened feet with gasoline thanks to omnipresent tar balls produced by offshore oilrigs.
There’s a never-ending supply of live-action films that strive to recreate a specific time and place. Using animation to tell Stan’s story proves to be an inspired choice that somehow feels more authentic than live-action. Perhaps it’s because animation delivers a slightly impressionistic aesthetic that lacks the visual minutia of reality, essentially sidestepping the close scrutiny that historical recreations tend to invite. Enhanced with a creative selection of ‘60s needle-drops, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a thoroughly entertaining and lovingly crafted time capsule that exudes verisimilitude.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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