You know, when I was six-and-three-quarters, if I’d gotten the family home sucked into space and nearly blown up by robots and flesh-eating alien lizards, not to mention flash-freezing my sister, I would have been grounded for, oh, at least a week.
Zathura is an adaptation of a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote the books for Jumanji and The Polar Express. As a story, Zathura is similar to Jumanji, in that a game plunges a family into in adventure that seems to take over their house. As a movie, I enjoyed it far more than Polar Express. The young heroes in this movie are much less passive and lacked the creepy thousand-yard stares of Express‘s computer-generated characters.
Six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) do what brothers tend to do, namely compete for their father’s attention and fight a lot. Due to business, their father (Tim Robbins) is forced to leave the feuding siblings in the disinterested care of their teenaged sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), who’d rather sleep until her date that night.
The brothers’ continual bickering results in Danny being locked in the old houses creepy basement, where he discovers an old mechanical space adventure game called Zathura. Unsuccessful at tearing his brother away from watching baseball on ESPN, Danny starts to play the game by himself. After his first move, the game spits out a card that says “METEOR SHOWER: TAKE EVASIVE ACTION.” The next thing the two brothers know, the living room is being pelted by meteors that tear up the wall, floor, ceiling and furniture. When they look outside, they discover that their house is adrift in space.
Not real space, mind you, but the fanciful outer space of the Buck Rogers serials suggested by the game’s design, where it’s possible for young boys to stand on the porch and not suffocate in a vacuum.
Sister Lisa is oblivious to the whole thing until the next card results in her being cryogenically frozen in the bathroom while primping for her date. More cards result in the house being torn to shreds by a malfunctioning killer robots and blasted by Zorgon spaceships. Walter, realizing that finishing the game is the only way to get back home, insists they keep playing. Danny thinks he’s crazy, seeing only the havoc wreaked by every move.
They finally start to get a handle on the situation after they have to rescue a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard), who helps them deal with the Zorgon problem while proceeding to raid the refrigerator at the same time. It falls upon the astronaut to keep the still-feuding boys playing the game. It seems that he has a personal stake in how the game turns out.
Eventually, Lisa thaws out enough to contribute her “extreme” solution to the ongoing Zorgon issue. Her crush on the astronaut, however, is doomed for reasons that Star Wars fans will understand completely.
Director Jon Favreau keeps the pace lively and kinetic, favoring on-set practical effects over computer-generated images. This gives the scenes where the house is being torn to shreds by robots, harpoons and Zorgon cannons a real energy. His ability to deliver a sci-fi universe that successfully conjures up memories of pulp stories from the thirties gives me real optimism for his upcoming adaptation of John Carter of Mars.
Given its roots in a children’s story, Zathura is obviously a movie aimed primarily at kids, but anyone should enjoy its high energy and sense of fun and wonder.