Nostalgia can be a curse, a poison, a mind-killer far worse than fear. Unless, of course, it’s your subjective nostalgia — then it’s a sentimental journey through the various signposts and miscellaneous debris that have made you the person you are today. Or: it’s nostalgia as filtered through the lens of Richard Linklater, who has a knack for making his wanderings down memory lane feel both remarkably specific and incredibly universal. You do not have to have been a would-be intellectual with a Eurail pass, waltzing through Vienna with someone you just met on a train (or in Linklater’s IRL case, a toy store in Philadelphia), to recognize that bygone twentysomething feeling he’s chasing in Before Sunrise. You do not need to have played college baseball like he did to see similarities between the wild ‘n’ hazy university experience in Everything Wants Some! and your own. And it’s definitely not a prerequisite to have grown up in the 1970s to soak in the second-hand high of Dazed and Confused, one of the rare movies to nail the regional details of a time period while also tapping into an eternal, timeless sensation of being a teen in the USA no matter what decade it is.
Like those movies, Linklater’s latest — Apollo 10 1/2, which starts streaming on Netflix on April 1st and will hopefully get a theatrical run somewhere; it’s really a big-screen movie — traffics in the sensation of looking back in wistfulness. It’s an animated take on a space age of innocence, a Rotoscoped roman à clef hidden under the guise of a kid’s adventure flick. Our hero is Stan (Milo Coy), your typical fourth-grader in El Lago, Texas, circa 1969. He’s approached on the playground by two official looking men played by Zachary Levi and Glen Powell. They work for NASA, just like Stan’s dad does, only they’re closer to some top-secret-mission government types. It seems that, on the eve of what will be the historic Apollo 11 trip to the moon, the engineers have accidentally made the lunar module too small. Someone who is roughly the size of a 10-year-old is needed to take it for a test run before the actual launch. They have chosen Stan for this highly classified job. Would he do it for his country? A better question: What boy in 1969 wouldn’t want to be a secret agent-slash-astronaut rocketing through outer space?!
Just as Stan starts his training, however, the filmmaker hits the pause button. The now-adult Stan, voiced by a far-less-manic-than-usual Jack Black, has been acting as a de facto narrator. But before we go any further, he’s decided that he wants to show us what life was like for kids back in the late 1960s. And that’s when Apollo 10 1/2 turns into a straight-up wayback time machine, as much a memory piece as Roma, Belfast or Licorice Pizza. Linklater was born in 1960, so he’d be around Stan’s age when Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind; like the movie’s hero, he spent some of his formative years right outside of Houston. Unlike Stan, the future Slacker director only grew up with two older sisters, and not in “Brady Bunch-like configuration” where he was the youngest of six siblings.
But it’s not hard to imagine that Linklater also remembers the appeal of new inventions like push-button phones and “Astroturf,” or the joy of riding Schwinn bikes through dusky suburban streets, or getting a Popsicle stuck to your tongue at the local community pool on a sweltering July day. It’s possible that his own mom, much like the cranky matriarch of Stan’s family, stretched a Sunday ham out for four day’s worth of meals and made tons of Jello molds. He likely rode in the back of an open pickup truck with a gaggle of other kids while going down the highway at 70 mph, as was the custom at the time, and now looks back on such what-were-they-thinking moments with both affection and horror. Youth is all one endless summer, just a blurred-together parade of bowling alleys and BBQs and front-yard football games and prank calls while Herb Albert’s “Spanish Flea” or the Hawaii Five-O theme plays in the background. War was just something that happened on television; ditto riots and assassinations. “I guess that’s just how adults act,” Black’s voiceover intones, channeling his younger self’s thought process. If there’s irony in his line reading there, it’s barely detectable.
Linklater has called Apollo 10 1/2 “a memoir of ephemera,” and it’s easy — almost too easy — to look at this movie as just one long “remember when?” montage doubling as boomer catnip. Yes, TV sitcoms were indeed awesome at the end of the Sixties (Gilligan! Jeanie! Those Hillbillies of Beverly!), and everything seemed so new, and wasn’t life simpler then? The answer, of course, is depending on whom you ask, and you can see how this portrait of, per its subtitle, “a space age childhood” commits to recounting its litany of back-then-itudes through one child’s perspective, and one child’s perspective only. Reflection isn’t the name of the game here. Even when the animation team utilizes the Rotoscope process, which sketches over filmed live-action for a weird neither-fish-nor-fowl vibe (see Linklater’s own Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), there’s the sense that everything is being filtered through an old, faded Kodachrome photograph.
What keeps this from just being the neato cinematic equivalent of those Sixties pop-culture jigsaw puzzles, however, is how all this cataloguing of stuff starts to construct a vibe that eventually informs and opens up that kid’s adventure story. You remember, that whole thing about Stan being chosen for a super-cool secret mission? The sort of thing Linklater’s Austin neighbor Robert Rodriguez used to do on the regular? We return to that narrative concept right as Neil, Buzz and all of those geeky guys with pocket protectors are about to make history. And now that the Wonder Years mood is set and the spirit-of-’69 detritus that litters the memory banks has been archived, the movie starts to take on the feel of something both half-remembered and half-dreamed. Apollo 10 1/2 starts off as a fantasy, a family comedy and a loosey-goosey flashback. It exits as a tribute to imagination, which — like so many of Linklater’s best movies — uses something personal as a jumping-off point for something poignant, funny, expansive, and ultimately moving. It’s his Remembrance of Things Past, written in Atomic DooDads font and wrapped up in all of things we eventually leave behind.