A scene from “Apollo 10½”
By Noah Gittell
Director Richard Linklater is the preeminent master of the “hangout” movie, the kind that eschews plot and character development, and instead gets by on its good vibes. He’s a party planner as much as a director, and, with chilled-out hits like “Dazed and Confused”, “Waking Life”, and “Before Sunrise” (as well as its sequels), Linklater makes sure everyone is invited to the bash. His latest, “Apollo 10½” feels at first like a more tightly plotted escapade, but it’s actually a brilliant bait-and-switch. It’s a film so averse to conventional storytelling that it basically forces you to lie back and drink in the details.
The animated sci-fi comedy is set in the same time period and place in which Linklater grew up — the late ’60s in the Houston suburbs — which makes Stan (Milo Coy), a regular kid who likes baseball and movies, a likely proxy for Linklater himself. Except for one twist. In the opening scene, Stan gets pulled aside at school by two men from NASA who request his help with a unique predicament. In their preparation for the first moon landing, they accidentally built the lunar module too small for a grown adult. Since they don’t want to waste taxpayer money, they have decided to send a child to the moon. It’s all confidential, so Stan won’t get to tell anyone about his training or his mission, which he wearily accepts.
He’d rather be hanging out with his friends all summer, and so would the film. “Apollo 10½” isn’t an alternate history of the space race. It quickly becomes clear that Stan, who refers to himself as a “fabulist,” didn’t really make this trip, not even within this fictional world. It hardly matters, as the film finds nostalgia more compelling than science-fiction. After a brief training sequence at NASA, we are left to linger in Stan’s suburban world. Narrated in pleasing voice-over by Jack Black, playing Stan as an adult, Linklater takes us on a tour of his own childhood, chronicling the games he played, the movies and television he watched, and the scams he pulled.
For long stretches of the film, there is no story, just a carousel of scenes that thrums along briskly. We watch his mother make lunch for the kids and discover JELL-O molds. We listen to the Texas wisdom doled out by his father; his speech on the difference between a redneck and white trash will leave you nodding your head at the inanity. At some point, you might find yourself wondering what the point is, but Linklater is having so much fun recreating the particulars of his youth that it gently rubs off on the viewer. Meanwhile, he drops in a few bits of critical analysis, such as his observation that this particular moment in history was pitched exactly in between the past and the future, that the details never seem trivial.
In fact, Linklater’s portrayal of childhood is so engaging that it’s a disappointment when the film returns to its plot. Eventually, Stan’s training and one-kid mission to the moon becomes narratively intertwined with the actual first moon landing, the one that had families in Houston and beyond glued to their television sets for four days in July of 1969. You can see what Linklater is after, conflating nostalgia and fantasy, and perhaps pinpointing the origin story of his own artistic obsessions, but the long, silent sequences of a child in a spaceship stop the film dead just when it should be at its most urgent.
Such space-age fantasies are simply no match for the rich, terrestrial world Linklater loves. “Apollo 10½” indulges in the transportive qualities of cinema, placing us in an era that feels like an antidote to our present, a moment of pre-disillusionment. Before Watergate. Before Stan gets interested in girls. It’s a sun-drenched remembrance of things past that I could have spent a lifetime in. It seems that Linklater’s audience is more eager to drink up the details of their youth than even he could have imagined, which makes the third act return to the space expedition a minor blunder, a misplaced decimal point that could have sabotaged the whole mission. But “Apollo 10½” is manned by a sturdy crew, and the good vibes with which Linklater imbues the film guarantees a soft landing.
“Apollo 10½” is currently streaming on Netflix.