The new Netflix movie Apollo 10 ½: a childhood in the space age is a magic trick. There are no stakes, no conflicts, no villains, no love interests, no money issues, and no one learns anything. Yet, miraculously, it’s engaging throughout. I hesitate to describe it as the story of a boy named Stan (newcomer Milo Coy) who grew up next to the Manned Spacecraft Center during the Apollo program. Why? Because “story” involves actions leading to other actions, and that is not what Apollo 10½ is about. To quote Homer Simpson, “It’s just a bunch of things that happened.”
The film is the work of filmmaker Richard Linklater, who, like Stan, was born and raised in Houston. Apollo 10½ is Linklater Rome or Belfast: a semi-autobiographical love letter to the time and place that shaped him. (He could have called her Clear Lake.) Perhaps its closest analogue is The tree of life by fellow Texan Terrence Malick. Both films involve children playing in mists of DDT in the midst of “long summer days of play and idleness“as cosmic things they don’t fully understand are happening nearby.
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Apollo 10½ is narrated by an adult Stan (Jack Black, Jumanji) these days, and the result is like a better version of something you might hear in a bar. Adult Stan tells things out of order, talks about superfluous details, and introduces characters but forgets to do anything with them. Meanwhile, in the background, humans are about to land on the Moon. Imagine a Linklater classic like Lazy or Dazed and confusedthen add the Texas space race and a sprinkle of rotoscoped psychedelia, and you’ve got the idea.
Linklater stripped many of the storytelling gimmicks to present a rambling but quick list of memories. But he allows himself a convention of narration. Among the responsibilities of being an older parent — say, a cool dad or aunt or grandfather — is to tell young people outright lies. Adult Stan just happened to blurt out (casually, that’s okay) that he was recruited by NASA to go to the Moon when he was in elementary school. NASA accidentally made the first lunar lander too small, you see, and the agency needed a child to test the lander in secret before the real adult moon landing.
This plot is never convincing in the reality of Apollo 10½. Is it a dream sequence? Is this a fantasy that Stan has as a child? Is Stan the victim of too many big red bullets in the skull? The most likely explanation is that adult Stan is our neglected uncle, the viewers are his little ones, and he pulls our legs for fun. Plus, Stan’s Tall Tale gives Linklater the bare minimum of a clothesline on which to hang his vignettes.
The film is set in the suburb that sprung up around the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in the 1960s. The buildings, streets, neighborhoods and schools are brand new, much like Stan and his classmates are building from scratch. Neighborhood kids — whose names, looks, and personalities come together — play street baseball, aimlessly ride bikes, and give presentations about space that their classmates half-listen to. They wander from screen to screen at the drive-in theater and try to get free games with pinball machines. They scour construction sites for supplies to build wooden forts in their yards (the foliage put up by builders is still decades away from being large enough to accommodate treehouses).
Mom (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 and tries to find wisdom to impart to his offspring. The space race pervades everything; we see used car lots describing their prices as “out of this world!” Characters move in and out, much like they do in memory. I’d have a hard time naming Stan’s siblings, and if his parents had any names, I didn’t catch them.
Along the way, we periodically see a moderately committed Stan participating in astronaut training and simulations. After being impressed with his kickball skills, a few suits pull him off the schoolyard and recruit him. (The NASA guys are played by Zachary Levi from Shazam and Glen Powell, who played—you wouldn’t know it—astronaut John Glenn in hidden numbers.) Stan tells it all with the same timbre he uses to describe most things in Apollo 10½i.e. it’s not as exciting as going AstroWorld.