This past weekend, Americans (that would be most of you, though Sitemeter helpfully informs me that a good deal of my visitors are from Europe and Asia, nifty!) largely overlooked to mega-hyped 50 Cent epic "Get Rich or Die Tryin", allowing it to open pathetically in 4th place. An explanation has not been found for this, but from where I sit it suggests a dangerous dip in our national surplus of suburban white teens looking to tee off mom and dad. Making a surprising STRONG showing, despite a (relatively) smaller advertising campaign, was "Zathura," a vibrantly clever and joyfully geeked-out family/scifi adventure.
Well done, guys.
"Zathura" has been touted as a followup (more like thematic cousin, really) to "Jumanji," a functional but unremarkable FX showcase starring Robin Williams you might remember from a few years back. Both were based on Chris Van Allsburg books, and they share the same basic setup: Children discover an enchanted (cursed?) board game which, when played, causes it's "imaginary" perils to manifest into reality. "Jumanji," you'll recall, conjured up the animal-and-otherwise threats of a 30s-style jungle adventure serial; while "Zathura" throws it's players into a circa-1950s pulp-scifi space quest. "Zathura" is the superior film.
The heroes here are a pair of kids, one older, bitter and sports-obsessed; the other younger, energetic and imaginative. They don't get along in the usual fightin-brothers way, and the older boy can just barely conceal the fact that he blames everything wrong with his life on the existence of his brother... including the divorce of their parents. Home alone save for a snoozing older sister, the littler bro finds "Zathura" and harraunges big bro into a game. Apparently too young to have seen "Jumanji," both are surprised when the house blasts off for deep space and they are assaulted by meteors, black holes, robots and, yes, a race of man-eating alien lizards. There's also a rescued astronaut and some ultra Star Trek-ish business about "time sphincters."
I live for this stuff.
The film just works, nose-to-toes, as a series of good decisions adding up to a whole: The WHOLE story plays out from the perspective (and usually the eye-level as well) of it's young leads, capable actors who REALLY seem to be the age they're playing. There's no winking pop-cultural nods, no inside jokes or "older" humor dropped in for the grownups. The FX, while up to snuff, are used to achieve a gorgeously archaic representation of "the future" as imagined pre-NASA. The bad guys, including the killer robot and space-pirate reptilian "Zorgons," are GREAT looking monsters and come off as a real menace... especially for a pair of kids.
It doesn't FORCE it's message of brotherly love, in fact it doesn't force much of anything at all. It just goes about it's way at the leisurely-rapid pace of a Disneyland roller coaster, supremely confident in the knowledge that as long as there are little boys there will always be a need for slimey aliens, jet-packs and deadly (but not TOO deadly) meteor showers.
There can now be very little doubt that Jon Favreau is the real deal as a director. He's currently getting a good going-over under the geek culture microscope as the latest would-be director of the Mars-based "John Carter" adaptation, a job which "Zathura" seems to emminently qualify him for.
Get out there, see this movie and take the kids.
FINAL RATING: 9/10