Richard Linklater is a master of the quotidian. Whether it’s the aimless 70’s summer night of Dazed and Confused or the sprawling meditation on growing up in Boyhood, Linklater has always been able to capture the pure magic of simply being present. The prospect of Linklater bringing this magic to the space age daydreams of his youth was almost too good to be true – especially when drenched in the gorgeous Rotoscope stylings he has used to such great effect before. What he produced, however, is a sumptuous scrapbook of random memories that doesn’t really tell us much of anything in the end. But it’s sure a lovely ride while it lasts.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood might be Linklater’s most personal film to date, based on his own daydreams as a child growing up in Houston in the 1960’s. t starts with this daydream – a couple of NASA agents recruit our protagonist Stan to be the first man on the moon. Why? Well, they built the first module too small and he’s just the right size, of course. While this fanciful plot device frames the film, the vast majority consists of an older Stan (voiced by Jack Black) listing off seemingly every memory he can think of from his childhood, leading up to the actual Apollo 11 mission. As such, the film ends up playing more like a journal entry than an adventure.
But what a journal. After the premier, Linklater shared that their research was so thorough that whenever the kids are flipping through TV shows, each one is exactly what would have been on at the time they were watching. This attention to detail can, quite honestly, be a bit overwhelming as the film meanders through various day to day experiences but it’s also quite mesmerizing. It’s obvious that Linklater poured a lot of love into this experience, consulting archives as well as family to make sure he presented as clear a picture of 1960’s Houston as he could.
What he doesn’t do, however, is present a realistic meditation on memory. While Linklater might have remembered all of these various experiences, the attention to detail ends up making the process feel a bit sterile. The daydream motif exists throughout the film but even that is played very realistically and there’s little sense of joy as Stan trains to be an astronaut – it’s almost like watching him go to work. Even when he’s finally bouncing around on the moon, he’s more or less expressionless as he focuses on completing his mission. It’s a strange way to present a time full of such futuristic promise but, perhaps it’s a comment on an adult looking back with sobriety rather than fancy.
It’s obvious that Linklater wanted to say something about the fluidity of memory but, instead, just ends up fleshing out his own a bit too much. It’s a gorgeous film with great performances throughout and it’s hard to fault it for being too well researched. It’s just a bit surprising for a director who has mined so much from such small moments to get a bit lost in a film filled with small moments.