Linklater Dreams and Memory of Space

In my earliest childhood memory, I am three years old. I’m sitting on the couch in my family’s TV room. The sun is shining in through the window. My brother has just been born, so it’s the beginning of October 1984, and everyone’s crazy about him. My dad comes into the room and hands me a new toy to keep me busy: A Robin from Kenner’s Super Power action figure line.

I do not remember much else about my brother’s birth, or anything that happened in the three and a half years before it. I can hardly remember much of anything from my life before I was 8 years old or so. But all these years later I can see the whole scene so vividly in my mind; me sitting on or the family’s reddish-brown sofa, my father handed me the colorful blue and yellow card with the words “Super Powers” almost leaping out of it; a free mini-cartoon hidden in the plastic blister with the action figure. This whole scene remains so etched etched in my mind that I sometimes wonder: did it actually happen? I have dreamed the same moment, or a variation of it, a few times over the years. Could my mind have invented this whole scenario and then imagined it over and over again until I simply thought it was really happening?

The flimsy barrier between dream and memory, and the way in which the former can sometimes feel even more genuine than the latter, is the subject of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood. An element of it is clearly a dream from Linklater, or at least a fantasy. In it, he follows a boy of primary school age named Stan (Milo Coy), as he is secretly recruited to the Apollo space program. Due to a technical error, NASA built the Apollo capsule too small, you see. They need someone with child-sized proportions to test it on its maiden voyage to the Moon. The smart young Stan is chosen to be the first boy in outer space.

Another director could have used this imaginative performance for a full-fledged adventure film. Linklater never indulges in any kind of produced drama, and in fact Stan’s journey to the Moon is a relatively small subplot in Apollo 10 1/2. Most of the film is handed over to the adult Stan (pronounced by a friendly, yet subdued Jack Black) as he recalls life in the Houston area around the late 1960s. There is not really a narrative or a problem to be solved. Stan simply remembers what it was like to grow up in the shadow of the American space program. It’s a bit like watching a feature film version of a man walking around over his old home movies.

It sounds desperately boring. But despite the lack of conflict, Apollo 10 1/2 is a charming and captivating 95 minutes, mostly because of the way Linklater mixes his memories and dreams from that period, and filters them both through the medium with Rotoscoped animation, which produces images that are somehow both surreal and hyperreal at once.

In live-action, the dream sequences would have been impossible to swallow, and the worldly 60s childhood thing might have started to feel boring, a simple account of TV shows and playground rituals, and curious characters from the neighborhood. Instead, Apollo 10 1/2 becomes a guided tour through a great artist’s brain and formative years.

Linklater has never made a film that takes place in space before – his only other science fiction film, A Scanner Darklyalso used the same Rotoscoping techniques – but he has made lots of movies about Apollo 10 1/2other topics, namely childhood and the nature of dreams (Linklater’s first animated film, awake life, was an even trippier ride through the subconscious). Here he works in a sweeter, softer key than we might expect; one imagines that Linklater has told these stories before, perhaps for decades, which could be why they feel so real, whether Linklater dreamed them or lived by them.

At first I found myself waiting Apollo 10 1/2 to screw up the suspense surrounding Stan’s journey to space, or to introduce some sort of villain or dilemma to complicate the film. Then I stopped looking for that kind of thing and simply got lost in Linklater’s intricate re-creation of Houston around 1969. The details are so precise; the way he evokes the excitement, for example, by visiting the old amusement park Astroworld and taking on its Alpine Sleigh Ride, can evoke your own memories of taking on exciting rides as a child. Or maybe some of your dreams of these memories today. Whatever these ancient childhood events are, whether we invent them or endure them, Apollo 10 1/2 reminds us that they are the things that transform us into the adults we inevitably become.

EVALUATION: 8/10

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