In 1977, psychologists Robert Brown and James Kulik coined the term “flashbulb memories” to describe events so historic that everyone aware of the event can immediately recall the place, time, and circumstance under which they witnessed it. Examples often include the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, September 11th, the election of Barack Obama, and, most commonly cited of all, the Apollo moon landing. Yet flashbulb memories can include smaller, more personal events, first kiss being the most often mentioned (although, how many of us actually remember that?), which mark unique or key moments in our lives.
For me, one such memory is watching Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise in the shared house of my then-girlfriend the last evening before we, like Jesse and Celine, would be forced apart without knowing when or if we’d reunite. The experience was so intense, the film itself so deeply, painfully resonant, that I can’t watch the film or its sequels without immediately flashing back to sitting on that living room floor hugging my girlfriend as she muttered, “I hate this movie.” Thing is, as with most flashbulb memories, the moment I picture so vividly likely never happened the way it does in my mind. Even flashbulb memories are twisted over time by how we felt in the moment, our hopes, fears, joys filtering our mental images the same way a filmmaker creates atmosphere. As a result, anything from a world-changing event to watching a movie can transform into psychosomatic trauma or sun-touched nostalgia. Seldom has this phenomenon been better illustrated than in Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. As well, seldom has the highly personal nature of this phenomenon been better illustrated than in a film that could just as accurately be titled OK Boomer.
One of Apollo‘s few moments of genuine narrative amusement comes at the very beginning, with the intriguing concept of NASA recruiting fourth grader Stan for a secret moon mission because the scientist made the Lunar Module too small for adult astronauts. However, rather than follow this narrative, the film spends the next 45 minutes, half of the film’s entire run time “telling you about life back then” through a slideshow of 1960’s warm fuzzies narrated in the sunniest tone by native Californian Jack Black using a soft Texas accent. The narration itself is pleasant enough but it quickly becomes a narrative crutch, a tell-don’t-show approach to storytelling. When the film finally returns to the narrative its frequent deviations undercut what is supposedly a foundational memory in Stan’s life. This extended sequence of how great it was to be a suburban white kid in the 60’s might be worth the time if it offered some commentary on the rise of the American middle class or the exclusivity of the American dream or even developed its own thesis on how the space program inspired an entire community, but instead we’re shown short vignettes of Stan’s family swiping leftover wood from construction sites, going to an astro-themed amusement park, and taking trips to the beach back before people knew that swimming in oil was bad. During this time the film plays out like a feature length version of Family Guy‘s Pepperidge Farm remembers gag. Remember The Game of Life? Richard Linklater remembers. He also remembers riding in the bed of a pickup truck and playing red rover until a kid broke his arm. Do these mean anything to the narrative? Do these point to some grander theme about the idealism of youth? No. But he remembers. So maybe you do too. And apparently that’s supposed to be enough to make Apollo 10 ½ worth watching.
On occasion that Apollo does make an interesting point, like opining that “life was cheaper back then. We were disposable” it does so with no follow-up. There’s no introspection given, no criticism. When the film makes stabs at social commentary by recreating videos of Jane Fonda criticizing the Vietnam War and civil rights activities protesting the space program, the ease with which they’re dismissed amounts to the film saying “these things also happened” right alongside animated versions of The Monkees and Dark Shadows.
One thing that Apollo 10 ½ does extremely well is continue Linklater’s use of rotoscope animation as employed in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The animation flows beautifully – particularly in the subtle facial movements during character interactions – and serves as a sharp visual representation of Stan’s memories, faded and abstracted as they are. Yet, as with much of the film, it’s hard not to expect more from the animation beyond the same shallow pleasure as also remembering meals made from canned ham. Where Linklater’s previous animated work lead toward surrealistic dreamscapes and psychedelic drug trips, Apollo‘s animation is spent recreating moon landing footage we’ve all seen a thousand times before. Sure, a cartoon captures childhood hope and innocence better than live action, but splicing in some real footage, maybe in moments where the adult world punctures Stan’s nostalgic bubble, would have added so much substance to a project so lightweight that it doesn’t contain a single frame of gravity.
As proven in Boyhood, SubUrbia, and Before Sunrise, Linklater is a filmmaker capable of using specific places, times, and circumstances to evoke universal themes of hope, life, love, and so forth, so seeing only the barest possible attempt at any non-personal meaning makes Apollo 10 ½ even worse. It’s not that the film is merely boring or bad, I’m sure there are millions of people for whom “remember Quija boards and Jiffy Pop” will be enough to make them happy, it’s that beyond the rose-tinted wasn’t-life-so-much-better-then puffery there is a great film trying to come into focus. In the same way that Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast used the background of The Troubles to craft a love letter to film, Linklater could have used Apollo to highlight the contributions of the space program (an idea hinted at through end credit title cards an hour after belittling the father’s non-astronaut job). Linklater could have used the film as a statement on the nature of nostalgia or the unreliability of memory. Instead, the filmmaker brushes aside such examination with an enraging punchline that isn’t worth the previous 90 minutes of achingly specific recall. Rather than develop the meaning behind Stan’s decades old memory substitution, or why we as humans feel the need to inflate the past, Apollo 10 ½ ends with as much gravitas as an episode of VH1’s I Love the 60’s. (Hey, remember when VH1 and MTV showed music videos? Richard Linkletter does. And I bet if he made a 90-minute movie about all the music videos he watched as a kid Netflix would buy that too.)
Nostalgia can be a very powerful tool in an artist’s workshop. When effectively used it can short circuit the audience’s brain, establishing verisimilitude or hijacking sympathies toward a character. When ineffectively used it can feel manipulative; the artist exploiting the audience’s pleasant memories to compensate for the artist’s incompetence. In the case of Apollo 10 ½, there isn’t enough narrative or character for the nostalgia to become manipulative. There is so little of anything that partway through Stan’s third family trip to nowhere I quoted my ex-girlfriend by muttering “I hate this movie.” Whereas her utterance came from seeing herself reflected so acutely that it hurt, mine came from boredom and the complete failure of the film to reflect anything of substance. Maybe people who grew up in the same place, same time, and same circumstance as Linklater can enjoy Apollo, assuming that they don’t expect the film to, like, mean anything, but those of us who don’t share the same flashbulb memories won’t find much to remember. Making a semi-autobiographical film about your childhood is fine, a lot of filmmakers have used that time to make landmark cinema, but those films offer more resonant experiences than Hey, remember roller coasters? Remember chlorinated public pools? Remember touch tone phones? Richard Linklater does, and at only 60 years old he seems as though he’s five years away from writing characters complaining about avocado toast and preferred pronouns.
But hey, some people love nostalgia, usually those whose lives have peaked and there is nothing left to look forward to. Hopefully Linklater isn’t one of those people otherwise future generations will look back everything after Apollo 10 ½ the same way Millenials look at grandparents ranting about mask mandates and NFL protests: OK Boomer.