Going over the film trailers for the April edition of TFINYW, one jumped out to me so strongly that I just had to include it as this month’s “Redemption Reel.” Written and directed by Richard Linklater, Apollo 10 1/2 had that wonderfully odd, imaginative charm that has been at the forefront of Linklater’s best films, not to mention an absolute deluge of nostalgia. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Linklater was mere days from his ninth birthday when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon in Apollo 11, Michael Collins orbiting above. It’s one of the greatest moments of American history, and given that Linklater was at the perfect age to capture that magical memory, there are few filmmakers who could better tackle an animated tale surrounding the event.
But what drew me in most of all was that the story was ostensibly about a fictitious test flight involving a child in the neighborhood. What a creative idea! Taking a kid who dreams of being an astronaut and actually putting him in the lunar module for a fantastic voyage before the actual one is inspired and truly novel. There was no doubt. I had to watch the movie as soon as it debuted on Netflix.
In a weird way, though, that trailer turned out to be something of its own April Fool’s joke, as the actual film is nothing like what the preview teases. Yes, there is the fantasy story of a young boy named Stanley (Milo Coy, with Jack Black narrating in his adult form) being secretly recruited by two NASA scientists (Zachary Levi and Glenn Powell) to take the actual first trip to the Moon because the module they designed was too small for the adult astronauts. But it’s a tiny part of the overall narrative, and one easily written off by the fact that Black’s narration establishes that Stanley is one to weave tall tales to make the more ordinary aspects of his life seem more exciting and cool.
Normally, this would anger me to no end. I absolutely despise it when a trailer promises a movie that it absolutely fails to deliver. In worse hands, this would be a deal-breaker, and I’d be looking for anything of quality in the film to elevate it above an F grade. This ends up being the exception that proves that rule.
This is the thing about Linklater. Few directors have his talent for truly tapping into the American experience, especially for Gen X-ers and suburbanites. So instead of a marvelous odyssey to our natural satellite, the film is more in the vein of Belfast, in that it’s a deeply personal story – and almost certainly autobiographical in parts – that takes a look at all of life surrounding this one crystallizing event in our collective history. The film’s subtitle is A Space Age Childhood, and that’s the real emphasis here: a time capsule of growing up in the era where mankind was extending its reach farther than it had ever done.
The big difference is that Kenneth Branagh opted for intimate black-and-white photography while Linklater returned to one of his more underrated techniques, rotoscope animation, where live actors film scenes that are then drawn over, with CGI effects added in. A Scanner Darkly made great use of this effect 16 years ago, and became one of my favorite films that year because the surreal, Uncanny Valley-style animation matched the chaotic, fucked up tone of the film and its characters. Here, there’s a much brighter color palette, reminiscent of the Saturday Morning cartoons Stanley references as part of his weekly routine, so again, it properly matches the film’s inspirational and aspirational intent.
The core of the film is in Stanley’s cleverness, which for most of the film works really well. The movie itself opens with him showing us how he would outsmart his gym teacher’s draconian punishments through trial and error. This attention to detail and quick wit is supposedly why he’s recruited for the off-the-record Apollo mission over a more advanced student. In one of the more funny bits of dialogue, the entire project is justified by pointing out that just like Stanley, the guys at NASA are also good at math, but even they make mistakes and no one gets a perfect score all the time.
It’s this cleverness that helps him to create more interesting versions of his father’s job at NASA. His dad, played/voiced by Bill Wise, is a logistics manager, mostly in shipping and receiving, but Stanley comes up with any number of possibilities, from engineer to rocket propulsion to being on the wait list to go up in a future mission. It’s a fun device that gets a strong point across. Everyone has a part to play, even if it’s not glamorous. I mentioned this in yesterday’s column when complaining about Better Nate Than Ever, because that movie seemingly is built on the idea of refusing to allow talented children to face the reality that they’ll most likely never be a star, and that they need to learn that there’s still value in your passions even if you can’t be in the spotlight. This movie illustrates that point perfectly – figuratively and literally – as Stanley is allowed to posit this story about becoming an accidental astronaut as a cipher for all of us who dreamed of going into space as kids while at the same time gaining an appreciation and pride in his father’s work, knowing that he’ll never make headlines, but Armstrong’s foot doesn’t step on that surface without him. That’s both crucial and beautiful.
Most of the film is a series of vignettes about life in the Houston suburbs during that fateful summer of 1969, bathing each scene in nostalgia and needle drops. And yes, Linklater’s boner for Texas is on full display again, but at least there’s a point to it this time, unlike in say, Boyhood or Everybody Wants Some!!!, where it’s just window dressing. A lot of these scenes are fun and insightful, though Jack Black’s narration is a little too omnipresent sometimes. He definitely proves himself an exception to the rule about too much narration, just like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, but every so often he turns on a slight Southern drawl that doesn’t really fit his voice.
It also doesn’t help that the overall plot structure is a little jumbled. The movie starts with Stanley’s recruitment, then after a few scenes of training we freeze frame and jump back several months as Black narrates everything leading up to that point, which takes up half the runtime. Once we’re back in the “present,” with Stanley’s flight and the actual Apollo 11 mission, Black is still narrating, which is a touch jarring at times.
But really, the point of the film is to capture the wonder and excitement that was the first Moon Landing and translate that to an audience who didn’t get to experience it first- or even second-hand. Like the Apollo 11 documentary that came out a couple years ago, the idea is to put you in the capsule, to give you the feeling that you’re living the moment. And in that respect, the film succeeds in droves, because not only does it convey that pinnacle of human achievement with wide-eyed gravitas, that same emphasis is shared with everything else in Stanley’s life that directly or indirectly informs it. Even the most mundane things like making several meals out of a single canned ham or a cheesy sci-fi movie positing on the Space Age before it even took place is treated just as preciously as that groundbreaking moment when the Eagle made contact.
This was certainly not the film that was promised in the previews. But in the rarest of circumstances, thanks to the deftest of hands, we might have gotten something even better, capturing that instant in childhood where anything and everything seems possible. It at once lets you reminisce about the past, dream about the future, and love your present. I think that’s more than enough to forgive a misleading trailer.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you think we’ll ever go back to the Moon? What about beyond? And would you go? Let me know!
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