Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood will be available to stream on Netflix UK from April 1. 

Suburban Texas lies at the heart of Richard Linklater’s cinematic universe, backdropping everything from the mellow summer party of Dazed and Confused (1993) to the peripatetic upbringing in Boyhood (2014). But during an exhilarating few days in July 1969, to live in even the sleepiest suburb of the state was to be near the centre of the world itself, as global attention focused on the Apollo 11 lunar mission and its control centre in Houston.

Linklater’s Netflix-produced Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood shows us, with its appealing animation and gentle humour, what it was like to be there. Stan (Milo Coy) is growing up in 1960s El Lago, a Houston satellite town brimming with techno-optimism. The community is full of Nasa staffers (including Stan’s father), and sci-fi theme parks and movies are all the rage. Living there and then “was like being where science fiction was coming to life”, the adult Stan (Jack Black) recalls in his voiceover narration, which guides us through his patchwork of reminiscences about his life in the years leading to Apollo 11.

Several fine features about the mission itself were released around its half-century anniversary, including the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man (2018) and the stunning archive-based documentary Apollo 11 (2019). Apollo 10½ shows us the cultural context, and the effects of an extraordinary event on ordinary lives. Linklater, who also wrote and produced the film, is himself a Texan and was nine years old, like Stan, in 1969. While the film isn’t purely autobiographical, it teems with the idiosyncratic details of remembered experience. This is a world in which corn chips and sauce make a lunch, mothers warily observe hippies from the safety of their cars, and early-rising kids sit patiently before the TV until the day’s programming starts. There is strife on the fringes – the Vietnam War and racial tensions at home are alluded to – but Stan’s family is fortunate enough to be insulated against them, and so is able to join in the optimism of the moment. The care and affection with which their milieu is evoked give the film charm.

Which is as well, because Apollo 10½, like many of Linklater’s more personal projects, lacks a tight plot. Instead, it builds leisurely toward Stan’s experience of the moon landing, during which the boy dreams of commanding the spacecraft himself. This scenario is developed in parallel with the earthbound storyline, and the film keeps us guessing about the exact nature of the fantasy, the use of animation – and the unvarying nonchalance of Black’s delivery – obscuring the line between reality and imagination until the elegant ending proposes an explanation. By this point, we know Stan’s life well. We’ve witnessed the Space Age fever that surrounds him. We’ve also seen how, as the youngest of six siblings, he is sometimes sidelined in the family dynamics, and so might yearn for the chance to play the hero. Many children want to become astronauts, but Stan’s dream is vivid and detailed enough for us to really understand why he has it.

Like Linklater’s previous animated features, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Apollo 10½ incorporates rotoscoping: production began with a live-action shoot, which then served as the basis for much of the animation. (The animation studios, Submarine and Minnow Mountain, employed a similar technique for Amazon’s delirious drama series Undone, 2019-.) But the approach is a little different this time. In the earlier features, in-between frames were ‘interpolated’ – automatically generated by software – lending an uncanny smoothness to movements that suits the films’ hallucinatory modes.

Forgoing interpolation, Apollo 10½ is comparatively realist in style. The character animation is naturalistic, the camera more grounded than in the previous films. Some in the industry hold rotoscoping in disdain, believing that because the animation is so closely modelled on live-action footage it lacks artistry. But its use feels appropriate in this film, which, after all, recounts actual events as filtered through memory and childhood imagination.

A family settle in for a movie in El Lago, Houston, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
A family settle in for a movie in El Lago, Houston, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
© Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix has yet to produce a great animated film, but with its touching, funny and thoughtfully structured story, this one comes close. It also offers an implicit argument for expanding the use of animation in mainstream cinema, all the more powerful for coming from a major American studio. Apollo 10½ doesn’t belong to any of the sanctioned genres of ‘adult animation’, such as gross-out comedy or war drama. Nor is it a family-friendly Pixar clone. Where so many animated features condescend to kids with rehashed gags and storylines, tacky designs and pat morality, Apollo 10½ does something much rarer: it takes the child’s point of view, conveying a sense of its wonder.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

Find out more and get a copy