Having stuck the boot into Netflix over their abysmal one-joke, in-joke comedy The Bubble over the weekend, lets highlight one of the streamers’ more worthwhile projects by way of balance. Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood also dropped worldwide over the weekend, and new work from Linklater is always a good thing for film. Netflix may have minimal quality control when it comes to buying and making films, but they do have deep pockets, and Linklater is the kind of organic, original talent that deserves a budget to play with. Film-making is, as Orson Welles put it, the ultimate train-set a boy could wish for, and Linklater is sufficiently in touch with his own boyish ambitions to capture his own thought processes intact, although his love of film-making is one aspect not touched on.
The title has just the right evocative feel, the self-deprecating joke of a child in awe of the NASA space programme as he grew up in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The opening sees our protagonist, Stanley, approached by two NASA officials and asked to join a secret space programme; the remainder of the film intercuts Stanley’s recollections of family and school life with a elaborate fantasy adventure in which Stanley is the first human being to reach and walk on the surface of the moon. ‘We were the last duck and cover generation,’ intones the narration, but that’s one of the few aspects that Linklater gets wrong; then again, it’s in his sunny, optimistic purview to believe the best about what’s coming down the pike.
Linklater’s thoughts are ably voiced by his School of Rock star Jack Black, and rather than use live action or animation, he presses into service the vibrant rotoscoping techniques that worked so well on Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Apollo 10 1/2 makes a virtue of scrupulously remembered period detail, music on the transistor radio (the eternally sinister In The Year 2525…), cartoons on the television, not-quite defrosted sandwiches in the school cafeteria, and these simple memories lend themselves to this kind of eye-catching, pop-art presentation. Linklater’s musings are bitter-sweet at times, and his memories of his cigarette-guzzling mother are suggestive of the burden of parenting. ‘On that note,’ she murmurs wryly as she heads off to slave in the kitchen, leaving her family in the company of a bikini-clad girl stripping underwater in a commercial.
Linklater’s nostalgia should strike a chord universally, while some memories are specific to his own time and place, so arcane details about baseball, golems and prank calls all feel very much like products of a Houston childhood. One of Everybody Wants Some’s many breakout stars Glenn Powell plays one of the NASA reps, warming up for his Top Gun Maverick role; the same actor played an astronaut in the popular Hidden Figures, and Apollo 10 ½ mines a similar seam of nostalgia and admiration for the early days of the space programme. Linklater has never made a boring film to date, and while it’s a genuine shame these luminous images won’t ever be seen on the big screen, the personal, genial Apollo 10 ½ provides a rare and welcome touch of class in the lowest-common-denominator world of streaming/couch-potato farming.