Houston, we have an over-narration problem in Richard Linklater’s ‘Apollo 10 1/2’
At its heart, ‘Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood’ is a warm, nostalgic kitchen-sink family comedy, and a tribute to the ordinary bureaucrats who helped the USA win the race to the moon. But it also might be the most egregiously over-narrated movie in cinematic history. Director Richard Linklater based the story on his own childhood in the Houston suburbs, the towns that NASA created. And he decided, for this particular story, to deploy the Rotoscope animation techniques that he previously used in ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Waking Life’. Your mileage may vary on Rotoscope, but it works quite well in this movie, particularly in the rocketship scenes and the recreations of vintage TV shows.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But Linklater chose to overlay the entire film, which premiered to enormous home-field advantage in Linklater’s home of Austin at South By Southwest last week and is soon to air on Netflix, with endlessly droning and often syrupy narration. Jack Black provides the voice-over, and he seems almost entirely disinterested in the material, as though he were doing the work casually over breakfast. It has no energy or urgency, and it’s definitely not funny, making the movie at times seem like an overlong and under-plotted episode of ‘The Wonder Years.’ When the family that the movie’s about goes to the beach, Black literally says something like “and then we all went to the beach,” hardly necessary, since we can see them at the beach.
The voice-over reveals such important facts as teenagers in the late 60s liked the Beatles and Baskin Robbins had 31 Flavors. If feels like one of those bad “Remember When” pamphlets at the back of a CVS magazine rack. There’s also a lot of fun talk about how things weren’t really safe back then, “but somehow, we all survived,” all narrated over footage of people doing unsafe things, which would have been funny without the narration itself. If you’re going to do semi-ironic nostalgia, show without telling. We’ll get the joke. After 45 minutes of this stuff, I did the dreaded thing. I looked at my phone so I could guess when the movie was going to end.
And that’s a shame, because there’s a good movie underneath the narration track. Our main character is ‘Stan,’ a 4th grader and a Richard Linklater stand-in. We know he’s a stand-in for Linklater, because like all the other Linklater stand-ins in Linklater movies, he’s cute, good at sports, cool and popular, but also kind of an artistic dreamer. Richard Linklater has never really been an underdog.
But given that this is the late 60s in Houston, Stan dreams of becoming an astronaut. In the movie’s central conceit, he spins out an elaborate fantasy where government agents secretly conscript him to test out the Apollo 11 rocket to make sure it’s safe for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. He keeps his mission hidden from everyone, and eventually ends up walking on the moon. To Linklater’s credit, he never breaks the wall of this fantasy and allows Stan to play it all the way through, though there is a supremely annoying record-scratch freeze-frame moment where Jack Black nearly says “yep, that’s me, I bet you’re wondering how I got here.” And then, unfortunately, we don’t get back to that story for another hour.
APOLLO 10/2: A SPACE-AGE CHILDHOOD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Zachary Levi, Josh Wiggins
Running time: 97 mins
Stan’s father works in shipping and receiving in NASA, not a glamorous job, but, in one of the narration’s only useful observations, it paid enough for him to raise six kids in relative middle-class comfort. Stan has a Brady Bunch-size family, two brothers and three sisters, and the movie (or at least Black’s narration) gives them personalities like “he mowed lawns on the weekends” or “she thought the Monkees were cute.” The parents are dead-ringers for Hank and Peggy Hill from ‘King of the Hill,’ but not nearly as stupid, or as funny.
For 60 minutes of endless blather, we hear about the music and TV and movies that made that era great. There are side trips to grandma’s house and to the drive-in and endless scenes of the wacky neighborhood kids that time forgot. It all has some sort of naturalistic potential, but Black’s narration renders it all bland and anodyne.
But then, in the movie’s last half-hour, the narration almost entirely shuts off as Linklater does a dual focus on Stan’s imagined mission to the moon intercut with a long scene of the family watching the actual mission to the moon on TV. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s as authentic a rendering as I’ve ever seen of a family watching news on TV. He doesn’t cut away. It just goes and goes, rivetingly so. The kids all fall asleep watching TV, but I was awake for the first time in nearly two hours.
With that segment, ‘Apollo 10 1/2’ makes a fine companion piece to other recent moon-landing movies, like the lachrymose Neil Armstrong biopic ‘First Man‘ and the incredible found-footage documentary ‘Apollo 11.’ In an era where we mock billionaires for wanting to live on Mars, Linklater reminds us of a time when the “squares” found common purpose in a moon shot. In the final scene, as the astronauts and/or Stan leave the moon, Jack Black is completely silent. Some things–most things, really–don’t require a voice-over. And Apollo 10 1/2 would be better with much, much less.