It’s not exactly shocking to discover Richard Linklater, the writer-director behind films like the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused, and Slacker, has made a movie without a plot. What is surprising, though, is how his new Netflix film, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, doesn’t have any conflict either. The animated movie’s sole purpose is to watch characters living in a specific place at a specific time. And how much you enjoy walking around and experiencing someplace different will determine whether you find the movie a charming and engaging journey or a frustrating slog to nowhere.
There’s no way to spoil Apollo 10½ other than to say its trailer is essentially a lie. That promo teases a film about a secret pre-Apollo 11 lunar trip made by a single kid astronaut. That’s the closest anything in this film comes to resembling a plot. But early on the movie reveals what it’s actually doing. And by the end we realize presenting this as a story about a child going to the Moon was a major disservice. It’s much more rewarding (and less frustrating) knowing what you’re actually watching before you do.
Linklater has created a living photograph of late 1960s Houston, when NASA essentially created a new city full of families with many children on its way to the Moon in 1969. We experience everything in the film through the eyes of young Stan. He’s a the youngest of six kids. An older, unseen Stan (voiced by Jack Black) serves as the movie’s narrator. He explains who everyone is and what life was like for people not directly impacted by the major events of the tumultuous decade. He also provides social commentary and explains the “whos” and “whats” of the era. That includes the biggest celebrities and moments to the most popular board games and TV shows.
The film is no love letter to the time period, but it isn’t a condemnation either. Stan looks back on this time in his life for what it was. Both the good and the bad. That’s the film’s biggest strength. It feels like a complete picture of the era. And because the image it paints feels authentic and lived-in the experience of being back in that time feels real. (The fact the film serves as a living painting is also why the animation works so well. A live-action movie would feel more like a period-piece than a living tableau of the era. The animation captures the feeling Linklater is trying to evoke.)
Being a kid then meant having a freedom youngsters today might not believe. No one in 1969 would have fathomed the idea of helicopter parents. Basic, general safety concerns were unimaginable let alone the norm. Stan sees the wonderful opportunities that came with that freedom while also reflecting on the inherent dangers of such a laissez faire attitude. If you saw a pickup truck bed full of kids driving down the highway at 75 mph today you’d call 911. You’d call the police if your kid’s principal hit them with a paddle. But at that time it never crossed anyone’s mind, adult or child alike, that such actions were reckless or unconscionable. Stan’s honest, unvarnished look back at life at the time is best summed up when he says, “Amongst all the fun it always seems like punishment, pain, or injury were never too far away.”
Looking back is all Stan and the film does, too. It’s entirely a reflection of this one place during this important time. Nothing actually happens to the characters involved. (So much “nothing” is ultimately why the film even has a “Stan goes to the Moon” element.) No one ever deals with any major problems. They barely deal with minor problems. Struggling over which kid controls the TV dial is as ornery as things get. And the many significant conflicts of the outside world, like the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and assassinations, are distant even when they’re present. Outside of the approaching Apollo 11 mission, nothing else really matters between passing the hours of regular life. Watching Apollo 10½ is like taking a time machine for a 92-minute sightseeing tour of the most normal American family you’ll ever meet.
That doesn’t sound inherently exciting, because it’s not. A film with neither a plot nor conflict is the visual equivalent of walking through a zoo when all the animals are on their best, most normal behavior. Only, in this metaphorical zoo you probably haven’t seen most of the animals before. The world of Apollo 10½ is so unlike the modern world of 2022, 1969 Houston feels like a distant place.
That doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it, though. How much you specifically like stories that immerse you in the middle of a specific time and place will determine how much you like this film. It won’t matter if you agree the animation style is beautiful. Not if you also think Jack Black provides a consistently superb and winsome narration. It won’t even matter if you also feel the film’s honest appraisal of the people and the time they lived in is commendable. How much you like walking around someplace interesting will solely determine if you like this film.
I very much enjoy doing just that. Both in real life and in fictional stories. So while Apollo 10½’s aggressive lack of plot (even by Linklater standards) and the total omission of conflict (by any person’s standards) caught me off guard, I mostly enjoyed the time I spent experiencing an America that disappeared a long time ago. If that’s something you’d like to do as well you’ll likely find yourself charmed by this little film. And if you don’t you can probably skip it entirely.
3 out of 5
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood also stars Glen Powell, Josh Wiggins, Milo Coy, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, and Danielle Guilbot. It debuted at this year’s SXSW. It makes contact at Netflix on April 1.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.