The new Netflix movie Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a magic trick. It has no stakes, no conflict, no villain, no love interests, no money problems, and no one learns anything. Yet, miraculously, it is consistently captivating. I hesitate to describe it as the story of a boy named Stan (freshman Milo Coy) who grew up next to the Manned Spacecraft Center during the Apollo program. Why? Because “story” implies actions that lead to other actions, and that’s not what it is Apollo 10½ is about. To quote Homer Simpson, “It just happened a bunch of things.”
The film is the work of filmmaker Richard Linklater, who, like Stan, was born and raised in Houston. Apollo 10½ is Linklaters Roma or Belfast: a semi-autobiographical declaration of love for the time and place that shaped him. (He could have named it clear lake.) Maybe it’s the closest analogue The Tree of Life by fellow Texan Terrence Malick. In both films, children play in the fog of DDT amidst “long summer days full of games and doing nothing” while cosmic things they don’t fully understand are happening nearby.
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Apollo 10½ is taken over by an adult Stan (Jack Black, jumanji) in this day and age, and the result is like a better version of something you might hear in a bar. Adult Stan narrates things from the series, goes into irrelevant details and introduces characters, but forgets to do anything with them. Meanwhile, in the background, people are about to land on the moon. Imagine a Linklater classic like looser or Dazed and confusedthen add the Texas space race and a dash of rotoscoped psychedelics and you have the idea.
Linklater has stripped away many of the storytelling artifices to present a rambling but lively list of memories. But he allows himself a narrative convention. One of the responsibilities of being an older relative — say, a father or a cool aunt or grandfather — is to tell outright lies to young people. Adult Stan accidentally (casually, no big deal) reveals that he was recruited by NASA to go to the moon when he was in elementary school. NASA accidentally undersized the first lunar lander, and the agency needed a kid to secretly test the lander before actually adult moon landings.
This plot line is never convincing in reality Apollo 10½. Is it a dream sequence? Is this a fantasy Stan had as a kid? Is Stan the victim of too many big red kickballs to the skull? The more likely explanation is that grown-up Stan is our sloppy uncle, the viewers are his little ones, and he’s pulling the hell legs out of us. Also, Stan’s tall tale gives Linklater the bare minimum of a clothesline to hang his vignettes on.
The film is set in the suburbs that grew up around the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in the 1960s. The buildings, streets, neighborhoods and schools are brand new, just like Stan and his schoolmates are rebuilding from scratch. The neighborhood kids—whose names, looks, and personalities blend—play baseball on the street, aimlessly ride bikes, and give presentations about space to which their classmates sleepily listen with half an ear. They roam from screen to screen in the drive-in cinema and try to get free spins from pinball machines. They scour construction sites for supplies to build wooden forts in their yards (the foliage brought in by builders is still decades away from being tall enough to house tree houses).
mother (Lee Eddy, Red vs Blue) uses the power of chain smoking to run the household while NASA bureaucrat Dad (Bill Wise, Sonic rebuilt) holds court from his chair, trying to find wisdom to impart to his brood. The space race permeates everything; we see used car lots describing their prices as “out of this world”! Characters drift in and out much like they do in memory. I would have a hard time naming Stan’s siblings and if his parents had names I didn’t catch them.
Along the way, we regularly see a moderately engaged Stan participating in astronaut training and simulations. After being impressed with his kickball skills, a couple of suits pull him from the schoolyard and recruit him. (The NASA boys are played by Zachary Levi of Shazam and Glen Powell, who, wouldn’t you know, played astronaut John Glenn Hidden Numbers.) Stan tells all this with the same timbre with which he describes most things Apollo 10½ie it’s not as exciting as walking AstroWorld.
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