In recent years, (male) directors have used cinema to review their past. As Fellini already did in Amarcord, filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar, Paolo Sorrentino, Alfonso Cuarón or Kenneth Branagh have used their films to review moments in their lives that represented a turning point. Among them there are differences in aesthetics and ethics. Cuarón does it from the feeling of bourgeois guilt, Sorrentino from absolute idealization, Almodóvar as a tool to talk about creation and desire (two of his obsessions), and Kennet Branagh, from equidistance.
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All of them are now joined by Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Dawn). He does it with his own rules. While in all the previous examples the main characteristic was gravity, the awareness of the importance of what is being told, Linklater does it from a playful point of view. There is no will to psychoanalyze and open up through his new film, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Childhood. Here there is only a radical will to recover the illusion and the desire to have fun from when one was a child.
It is inevitable not to think of this film as an autobiographical title. It is true that Linklater did not have so many sisters and that there are many things that differentiate him from his young protagonist, Stan, but he was born and raised in Houston on the same dates, so the reconstruction of a specific time and moment concrete vital part of their own experiences. There are no claims to mark a foundational moment in his career, or to analyze how the world changed in the 1960s —although he never loses sight of the importance of the historical moment—, and that is appreciated. That’s why he resorts to fantasy. Apollo 10 1/2 it has an exhaust leak that makes it more of a science fiction tale than an navel-gazing exercise in revisionism.
Its young protagonist is a boy who, out of the blue, receives a surreal mission, to go to the Moon before Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins do. The reason? NASA has screwed up and built a smaller lunar module that only fits a kid his age. An original, fun and magnificent idea to also tell how an entire city depended on the jobs it created. The excuse of the lunar mission gives rise to the real engine of the film, to recreate a specific time and sensation: that of being alive, that of being a child and not having to worry about anything other than playing dodgeball, eating ice cream and going to the movies. To do this, Linklater resorts again to rotoscoping, his peculiar style of animation that he already used in A Scanner Darkly and which consists of shooting the film and then turning it into animation by ‘drawing’ its frames.
Once Apollo 10 1/2 presents his narrative excuse, the director gives the stop and, in a long flashback, tells what life was like for children in the 1960s in Houston. A reconstruction of the cultural moment through music, TV shows, movies (from 2001 a space odyssey to The Wizard of Oz) and the stars of the moment. Also of the family and social dynamics that governed a society. A decade in which technology began to enter lives, but had not yet dominated them. There is in Linklater affection for his characters, love in what he tells and a lack of pretension. The only pretense of it seems to be having fun and having fun.
One of the risks of a film like this was falling into excessive nostalgia. Of course there is nostalgia in Linklater’s film, but the point of view chosen (that of childhood reverie) is so crystalline that there is no idealization of the past in his film. In fact, the director constantly points to the historical context and its importance. There are constant mentions of Vietnam, the fight for social rights, the Cold War, the hypocrisy of American society.
There is also, and it is one of his great findings, a look at issues such as the class complex. Stan, the protagonist, is ashamed of his father because he is the one who receives the mail at NASA and not an engineer. In fact, the lunar adventure almost seems like an act of childish rebellion against the working-class background of his parents, who are finally the ones who tuck him into bed after seeing the authentic lunar mission. The film tenderly describes that working-class family that does not understand a changing world and that tries to comply with what they have been told that a perfect family should be. All this without diatribes, without pompous phrases and without becoming serious, because Apollo 10 1/2 you go to play and enjoy, and Linklater succeeds so much that for an hour and a half you feel like a child again. A pity that Netflix, its production company, has buried its premiere and launches it almost without promotion under its other dozen of new products. The film, and Linklater, deserve more attention.