The new Netflix film Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a magic trick. It has no stakes, no conflict, no villain, no love interest, no money problems, and no one learns anything. Yet, by some miracle, it’s engaging throughout. I hesitate to describe it as the story of a boy named Stan (newcomer Milo Coy) who grew up next to the Manned Spacecraft Center during the Apollo program. Why? Because “story” implies actions leading to other actions, and that’s not what Apollo 10 ½ is about. To quote Homer Simpson, “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
The movie is the work of filmmaker Richard Linklater, who, like Stan, was born and raised in Houston. Apollo 10 ½ is Linklater’s Roma or Belfast: a semi-autobiographical love letter to the time and place that formed him. (He could have called it Clear Lake.) Perhaps its closest analog is The Tree of Life by fellow Texan Terrence Malick. Both films involve children playing in mists of DDT amid “long summer days of play and idleness” while cosmic things they don’t fully comprehend happen nearby.
Air Bud, meet space Stan
Apollo 10 ½ is narrated by an adult Stan (Jack Black, Jumanji) in the present day, and the result is like a better version of something you might hear in a bar. Adult Stan tells things out of order, goes on about extraneous details, and introduces characters but forgets to do anything with them. All the while, in the background, humans are about to land on the Moon. Imagine a Linklater classic like Slacker or Dazed and Confused, then add the Texas space race and a sprinkle of rotoscoped psychedelia, and you get the idea.
Linklater has stripped away many of the artifices of storytelling to present a rambling yet brisk list of memories. But he permits himself one storytelling convention. Among the responsibilities of being an older relative—say, a dad or a cool aunt or a grandpa—is telling youngsters bald-faced lies. Adult Stan just happens to let slip (offhandedly, no big deal) that he was recruited by NASA to go to the Moon when he was in elementary school. NASA accidentally made the first lunar lander too small, you see, and the agency needed a child to test the lander out in secret before the proper adult Moon landing.
This plot line is never once convincing in the reality of Apollo 10 ½. Is it a dream sequence? Is this a fantasy Stan has as a child? Is Stan the victim of too many big red kickballs to the skull? The more likely explanation is that adult Stan is our slovenly uncle, the viewers are his little ones, and he’s pulling our legs for the heck of it. Also, Stan’s tall tale gives Linklater the barest minimum of a clothesline on which to hang his vignettes.
The movie is set in the suburbs that sprang up around the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) in the 1960s. The buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and schools are brand new, in the same way that Stan and his schoolmates are building themselves up from scratch. The neighborhood kids—whose names, appearances, and personalities run together—play baseball in the street, ride aimlessly on bikes, and give presentations on outer space that their classmates drowsily half-listen to. They roam from screen to screen at the drive-in theater and try to get free games out of pinball machines. They scour construction sites for supplies to build wooden forts in their yards (the foliage put in by the builders is still decades from being tall enough to accommodate tree houses).
Mom (Lee Eddy, Red vs. Blue) uses the power of chain-smoking to run the household, while NASA bureaucrat Dad (Bill Wise, Sonic Rebuilt) holds court from his easy chair and tries to come up with wisdom to impart to his brood. The space race infuses everything; we see used car lots describing their prices as “out of this world!” Characters drift in and out, much like they do in memory. I’d be hard-pressed to name Stan’s siblings, and if his parents had names, I didn’t catch them.
Along the way, we periodically see a moderately engaged Stan taking part in astronaut training and simulations. After being impressed by his kickball skills, a couple of suits pull him off the schoolyard and recruit him. (The NASA guys are played by Zachary Levi of Shazam and Glen Powell, who played—wouldn’t you know it—astronaut John Glenn in Hidden Figures.) Stan relates all this with the same timbre he uses to describe most things in Apollo 10 ½, i.e., it’s not as exciting as going to AstroWorld.