Apollo 10½ should have been a slam dunk for me. Richard Linklater, one of my favorite directors, doing an impression of The Wonder Years, my all-time favorite TV show — a narrated nostalgia piece recalling the mixed experience of growing up in a turbulent time. I certainly enjoyed it, but the whole thing feels so utterly insignificant that it’s ultimately a bit disappointing.
This is the third rotoscoped film by Linklater, following 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly. I frankly found myself baffled by the choice of visual style: I would have vastly preferred Linklater’s live-action take. It would only take a minor rewrite of the script to make it a “spiritual prequel” to his other nostalgia works: He did high school in the mid ‘70s (Dazed and Confused) and college in the early ‘80s (Everybody Wants Some!!), so elementary school in the late ’60s would have fit perfectly.
The argument for the rotoscoping is that it processes everything through a slightly dreamy filter, evoking the experience of fondly recalling childhood memories. I suppose this works; there’s something almost synesthetic about the experience. We float through a whole movie of bright quasi-reality scored to narration by Jack Black and a number of lovely (but not too obvious) needle drops. Nonetheless, I still would have preferred a visual style that felt a bit more substantial.
What the movie lacks is any edge or vitality. This is just a sleepy, hazy piece of chopped up nostalgia riffs. They don’t really integrate into a larger vision of character or themes. It is a “portrait” of sorts, but a tonal portrait of a specific time and community, 1969 in Houston, not a character portrait. Linklater’s knack for capturing specific details is persistent as ever, and very charming. But the lack of character development or richness makes it all feel a bit shallow; it’s not as immersive as his best hangout films and too loose to feel like a proper narrative, simply because it doesn’t really feel like we’re hanging out with people. Just vague splashes of half-formed memories.
It also doesn’t help that the framing device fails to register in any significant way. Protagonist Stanley (Black/Milo Coy) is secretly recruited to be a child astronaut. It’s an intriguing premise with plenty, but it never builds with any resonance or literary power; it’s ultimately a strange, somewhat inert, fantasy side plot to the otherwise straightforward reminiscence.
The production, overall, is impressive: Regardless the questionable value of using the technique, the rotoscoping itself is terrific and lively. It’s frankly the brightest and most engaging demonstration of rotoscoping I’ve ever seen. The voice acting is strong, with Glen Powell and Zachary Levi fun additions as NASA scientists, and Black carrying the film with his Daniel Stern-esque narration.
Much of this review has come across as mixed and cynical, which is mostly a reflection of the missed potential for this pairing of concept and director. The truth is it’s overall a genial and engaging film. I wish it was even more like The Wonder Years, which often had a melancholy underbelly and literary ambition with its coming-of-age retrospection. Apollo 10 ½ is far too snoozy and laid back to bother with either of those. It’s content to gaze with warmth, then move on with a smile. I did the same.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film