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"A Cosmic Adventure"

A fast-paced family trip to the planet Zathura

by Michelle Evans, November 2005


We all enjoy taking a nice relaxing shower in the privacy of our own home. Just be sure what comes out of the tap is water and not meteors! The latter is guaranteed to create undue stress on your home and loved ones.


Having an unexpected meteor shower is only the first (and probably, least) of the dilemmas brought about by Danny and Walter Budwing (Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson) when the children start playing a vintage-era board game called Zathura.


This year has seen the release of many serious-minded space-oriented films, from Star Wars in May through Magnificent Desolation and Serenity in September. On November 11, another adventure, with more comedy added to the cosmic, came our way with the release of Zathura: A Space Adventure.


The story revolves around a family that is coming apart, a father (Tim Robbins) with too much work, a sister (Kristen Stewart) who cares only about her social life, and two brothers who get in her way while also being on each other’s nerves. The youngest, Danny, just wants to spend some time with his dad and brother. Dad doesn’t have enough time, and the older brother would rather eat worms than play with his younger sibling. In fact, Walter gets so perturbed with Danny at one point that he chases him into the basement of their old house through a dumbwaiter system, hoping his brother will lose himself in the dark labyrinth.


Instead, Danny finds an old game hiding under the stairs. When he pulls out the battered box and brushes away the dust, we see it is called Zathura: A Space Adventure. What kid could resist? Danny extricates himself from the basement and implores Walter to play the game. When Walter still ignores him, Danny decides to start the game by himself.


He winds the key and presses the button, out pops a card that reads, “Meteor Shower, Take evasive action.” Danny isn’t quite sure what this means, so he pesters his brother again. Walter relents and reads the card. As he does, a whistling streak sears past him and through the card he holds. A smoking hole appears in the floor. Soon, other meteors punch through the living room ceiling, creating a rain of terror for the kids. Since the game is for two players, the only way the barrage stops is when Walter takes his turn. With Walter and Danny hiding in the fireplace, the game continues.


Click, clank, whir, the card pops out and the little metal rocket game piece automatically moves several spaces down the track. Daylight outside the windows suddenly disappears. When Danny opens the front door, they find the whole house transported to Saturn in what has to be one of the coolest scenes in recent memory. The only way to get home is finish the game and take them all the way to the mysterious planet Zathura.


Their father is gone from the house before this all begins. He has left for an important business meeting, leaving their older sister, Lisa, in charge. She couldn’t care less, since she has a hot date that night. The first moves on the Zathura board are unnoticed by Lisa as she prepares for the night. She turns on her shower, while at the same moment downstairs, a move by the boys on the game board places her in cryonic freeze. She is out of the action until later in the movie, leaving Danny and Walter to cope with their cosmic adventure which includes a giant robot that wants to kill them, to having a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard) drop in to give them aid. Soon after, the reptilian alien Zorgons attack, indiscriminately blowing holes in the house until the three, and eventually four, work together to stop them.


Zathura is based on a short children’s book by Chris van Allsburg, author of Jumanji and Polar Express. The obvious comparison for this movie, directed by Jon Favreau, would immediately be Jumanji, however, except for the fact they are both movies about what happens when a vintage board game comes to life, the similarities quickly get sucked down a black hole. Zathura is just downright more fun than Jumanji. This fast-paced, seat-of-the-pants, ride will take your breath away as you are transported around the cosmos, not knowing where you may land on your next move.


The casting is superb. Tim Robbins does a great job as the father in what amounts to a cameo that opens and closes the film. The kids are the ones who carry this movie from start to finish, and both seven-year-old Jonah and 12-year-old Josh are up to the task. Although her part is much smaller, 14-year-old Kristen Stewart joins in with gusto about half-way down the path to the planet with the big “Z.”


Kristen told us, “At the beginning of the movie, the family, they’re very detached from one another. Through this journey they go on, they have to come together through all these dangers and perils, push past all their petty differences and realize that what’s important is family. That’s kind of the core of the movie.”


Both Jonah and Josh would like to go into space themselves someday. Where would they like to go? Jonah immediately popped in with, “Mars, ‘cause I think, if there were Martians, they would be there.”


Josh was a little more introspective. In fact, his comment was actually pretty astonishing for a kid his age. “I’d want to go to Pluto just to be able to look back at the Sun and look at it as a regular star. I’m just fascinated by how big space is, how it’s never ending, makes you go crazy sometimes.”


As you can imagine, they all get along great in real life, and that shows in the movie they all made together. Kristen talked about how she loved the boys so much that it was actually hard for her to yell at them as Lisa.


Dax Shepard, as the astronaut, could be called the adult supervision during their adventure in space. Since he had been stranded in space with the Zorgons and other perils for years, he supposedly knows the lay of the land, or should we say, vacuum? The real Dax is excited about the idea of human spaceflight, and is even working on a script concerning a follow-up to the Ansari X Prize.


Not that Dax would write about the X Prize in the way we might expect. “It’s a comedy. Instead of Burt Rutan, it’s six out-of-work Monster Garage type guys who try to build [a rocket] for 64 grand instead of 25 million.


Dax has an interesting take on why he wants to do a comedy about private spaceflight at this time. “This is a scary endeavor when you have a contest open to every American (and there are three hundred million of us, with some of us quite crazy and not skilled!), and they are allowed to enter [this contest]. It’s important to get your comedy out there before anything bad happens. We have kind of a finite timeline while this is still funny.”


Dax hopes his role in Zathura might inspire some boys and girls who see it with his portrayal of someone who comes to the aid of these kids in space. “It’s hard for me to see myself as cool or whatever, but I’m not ten. It will be interesting to see what the impact is on kids. It’s certainly a really fun movie and it’s pretty intense, too, which I like, because you know in the 1980s Spielberg didn’t pull any punches. E.T. was a pretty frightening movie when you’re a little kid. He made it appealing to adults, and I think Favreau accomplished that in this movie, quite well.”


Director Jon Favreau decided early in the filmmaking process he was going to go against tradition and use a lot of model work instead of computer-generated images (CGI).


“If you use too much CGI,” Jon said, “it starts to affect the emotion of the film, it starts to look like a video game. We decided we wanted the spaceships to look more like they did in the old Star Wars movies and not the new ones. We built motion-control rigs and used models, like they did. Nowadays, you can create anything with a computer. The trap people fall into is since you can create anything, [they say,] ‘Let’s do it, let’s show everything!’ As you know, the more graphic something is, it doesn’t necessarily have the most emotional impact. If that were true, pornographic films would be the greatest love stories ever told!”


It’s the story that counts in Zathura and the bond that was broken and is again cemented between the members of the family. Jon laid it out succinctly, “You have to keep the characters and the emotional story at the base of everything, then you surround that with effects and science and technology. If you’re not telling a good story, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing cave painting or a sitcom or a science fiction movie, you’re going to lose the audience.


“It’s not dumbed down for kids.” Jon continued. “There are certain things that kids don’t understand but parents get, but it doesn’t ruin the experience and it’s appropriate for children. We set out to make a movie for us that was a PG movie, but a movie told for adults, with no elements that were inappropriate for kids. It gets tense, it gets scary, there’s no violence per se, but the message, I think, is responsible. It deals with problems that kids are dealing with. Hopefully, that’s going to help. I don’t think that good storytelling has an expiration date.”


Playing a vintage board game places several kids and their house out into deep space. Not the stuff of most cosmic adventures. However, as Dax told us, “The beauty of this movie is that there is such a big sell at the beginning. If you can buy into the fact that a boardgame has ripped their house into outer space, the rest of the stuff is pretty inconsequential. So it’s not whether or not they're breathing in the house or the water is running, this is kind of insignificant at that point. It’s actually good to start a movie with a gigantic leap of faith and then the rest seems pretty minuscule.”


Zathura: A Space Adventure thrusts us into this situation and lets us watch the try to kids find their way home. Meteor showers and Zorgons notwithstanding, this family will hold together. Is this a game for the rest of us to play? The getting into space part and orbiting Saturn is definitely on my list of things to do. As for the Zorgons, I hope we find more peace-inclined aliens in our travels, but if we don’t, we’ll just call Danny, Walter, Lisa and Dax to get us all home safely for another round of play.