Watching Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10-1/2 for New Scientist, 13 April 2022
“What we really seek in space is not knowledge, but wonder, beauty, romance, novelty – and above all, adventure.” So said science fiction writer Arthur Clarke, speaking at the American Aeronautical Society in 1967, and with the gloss already beginning to flake off the Apollo project.
By the time Apollo 11 launched on 16 July 1969, NASA’s bid to land astronauts the moon — the costliest non-military undertaking in history — could not help but be overshadowed by the even more enormous cost of the Vietnam War.
Only a very little of this realpolitik trickles into the consciousness of ten-year-old Stanley (newcomer Milo Coy) as he propels himself on his Schwinn bike around Houston — north America’s own Space City. His father is one of NASA’s smaller cogs — one of the 400,000 people who contributed to the programme — but this is enough to inspire a whole other reality in Stanley’s head: one in which he’s hired for a secret test flight of Apollo equipment before the grown-ups, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, blast off to glory.
Jack Black (whose mother, incidentally, was a NASA engineer; she worked on Apollo 13’s life-saving abort-guidance system) plays Stanley in the present: a narrator whose perspectives have widened to take in the politics of the time, but not in a way that undercuts the story. Apollo 10½ is, in the best sense, an innocent film: a film about wonder, and beauty, and adventure. Though full of Boomer catnip (Look! The Astrodome! Glen Campbell! Hippies!) — it is not so much a nostalgic movie as a movie about childhood, about its possibilities and its fantasies.
To that end the film, an animation, harnesses the “interpolated rotoscoping” technique first developed by art director Bob Sabiston for Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life. Sabiston’s “Rotoshop“ software essentially allowed an artist to draw over the top of QuickTime files, much as inventor Max Fleischer drew over movie stills to create the first Rotoscoped animations in the 1910s.
The software worked a treat for the surreal philosophical meanderings of Linklater’s 2006 Waking Life (a documentary of sorts about consciousness) but keeled over somewhat when a frantic studio expected it to actually speed up the production of A Scanner Darkly.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.
An adaptation of Philip Dick’s paranoid classic (in which an undercover policeman is assigned to follow himself), this unfairly rushed film wobbles uncertainly between visionary triumph (type “scramble suit” into Youtube) and the sort of rather flat, literal animation that looks as if a computer could have done it unaided (though it couldn’t, and it didn’t).
Sixteen years on, Apollo 10½ realises Sabiston’s original 2½-D conception with perfect consistency. But that’s only partly down to improved technology. In fact traditional rotoscoping techniques were used in preference to the computer-aided “interpolated” rotoscoping of Scanner and Waking Life. The two-year industry hiatus triggered by COVID-19 gave Linklater and his animators the time they needed to hand-craft their film.
Time is rarely on the side of the filmmaker, but Linklater has chiselled out a unique relationship with the stuff. Boyhood (2014), about one boy’s childhood and adolescence, was filmed in episodes from 2002 to 2013 with the same cast. Merrily We Roll Along, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical spanning 20 years, will take 20 years to complete. Apollo 10½, which the director had been noodling around for 18 years, has taken longer than the whole space race.
These are approaches to production that any traditional film studio would struggle to accommodate. So it’s no surprise to find an odd duck like Apollo 10½ streaming as a Netflix original. The streaming company’s 222 million subscribers are already sat at their screens, waiting to be entertained. Relieved of the need to recoup single investments in single cinema-going weekends, Netflix can afford to work in a more constructive fashion with its artists. That, anyway, was Linklater’s view when interviewed by IndieWire in March 2022, and he’s by no means the first auteur to sing the company’s praises.
Streaming will kill the feature film? On the evidence of Apollo 10½ alone — a charming, moving, and intelligent movie — I think we should bury that particular worry.