Zathura: A Cosmic Adventure Worth Taking

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 1950s-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, will come 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, Lisa (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 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 pesters his brother again. Finally, 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 next to him. 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 it stops is when Walter takes his turn. With Walter and Danny hiding in the fireplace, the game continues. And the only way to get home is for the boyd to finish the game and take them all the way to the mysterious planet Zathura.

With dad away and self-absorbed Lisa in charge (a move in the game renders her "out of the picture" for the first half) it's up to Danny and Walter to cope with their cosmic adventure. This includes a giant robot that doesn't work quite right and 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" and we get to fly into outer space. 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."

Speaking with Ad Astra Online, Kristen said she enjoyed being in a comedic action adventure movie, most of all because the story had a heart: "At the beginning of the movie, the family are very detached from one another. The brothers are bickering constantly, vying for their father's attention, the sister couldn't care less what they're doing and just wants them out of her room. Through this journey they have to come together, 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. Jonah wants to visit Mars, but Josh was a little more introspective. In fact, his comment was actually pretty astonishing for a kid of 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."

Dax Shepard, as the astronaut, could be called the "adult supervision" during their adventure in space. Like the Robin Williams character in "Jumani", he has been stranded in the game, battling with the Zorgons and other perils for years, so he supposedly knows the lay of the land. However, his maturity level is not much higher than the kids.

In real life, Dax is excited about the idea of human spaceflight, and is working on a script concerning a follow-up to the Ansari X Prize. "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.

"There were a bunch of other teams competing [for the Ansari X Prize], that didn't get a Discovery Channel special made about them," Dax explains. "One of the teams sponsored a [rocket], and during the test flight, it crashed into the hardware store in town and lit part of the town on fire. It was just one of the teams we read about when we were doing research. Very like "The Full Monty", with a town getting behind it and the worst outcome of that."

While playing an astronaut in "Zathura," Dax hopes he might be able to 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. It has that 80s/Spielberg feel where it is a pretty scary ride, and worth it."

Director Jon Favreau decided early on in the filmmaking process 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."

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 board game 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" thrust us into this situation and lets us watch the 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.

Larry Evans is President of the Orange County Space Society CA

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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