Saturday, November 12, 2005

REV: Zathura

Zathura is worth a visit, especially if you have kids.

In a theater with about 20 kids (and their parents) tonight -- there was constant laughter and the enjoyment was palpable. That ought to be enough to recommend this film.

But i'm going to recommend it anyway. Is it a great film? No, but it's darn enjoyable from start to finish, with enough little twists to keep you thinking (when the heavyhandedness doesn't keep you from thinking anyway).

Danny finds an old game in the basement of the house where he, his brother and sister and father have just moved. The house is supposed to be a fixer-upper, but it's a pretty dandy starter.

The entire movie has a very retro feel, despite contemporary references every third minute, and some obvious nods to the 21st Century -- the cars (though dad drives a rather enviable old Falcon), cellphones, and movie and sports references that bring you right up to date (and any movie that references Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen is going to get a serious look from me).

The retro touches that play major parts in the plot are the dumb-waiter, the 50s style alien rocketships, and the game itself. It's a very nice mix.

Did i say rocketships? Well, the idea is that by playing the game, one with a space theme, tin rocketships, and yellow-edged aged playcards, you become a part of the game. When a card warns of meteors, it's not kidding.

In the course of playing, the boys discover that they have to "win" the game, play it to completion, in order to return safely home. Of course, nearly every card involves a roadblock, or a timewarpblock, of some kind. Just when the Zorgons (did i say Zorgons?) are about to blow the place to smithereens an astronaut who's been floating in space for fifteen years eating astronaut food from tubes comes knocking, makes a couple of big saves, and then is part of a sorta surprising plot twist that aims the kids on the trail back home. One wonders how a guy floats in space for fifteen years though and shows up with a two-day stubble.

Sorta surprising only because the major faults of the movie lie in being overtly obvious -- telegraphing the astronaut plot way too heavyhandedly for instance. There are way too many story-fillers in the way of extended reaction shots of faces not displaying a lot of reaction. There is way too much melodramatic overbearing score.

This story was written by Christopher Van Allsburg, who also wrote the other movie floating around out there about playing a board game and getting caught up in it -- Jumanji. That one was one of the worst films ever committed to eternity on celluloid -- in addition to being just plain unentertaining, it also suffered from ridiculous special effects. I worried about both of those things going into this film, but the trailer was intriguing enough that i thought it'd be worth a shot.

Where Jumanji was worst at the endemic SFX error of distorted perspective, Zathura tackles it nicely. For one -- even the space SFX have a bit of a retro look to them. That has the effect of lowering expectations perhaps. Nevertheless there are some nice viewpoints -- considering you're watching a multi-story house floating among asteroids.

Among the other problems are the usual poor green-screen resolution, a doubled effect with mismatched sizes and focus, and rotten fire FX. Those are routine mistakes. Why directors can't figure out to avoid them altogether is beyond me.

Of the actors, Tim Robbins is excellent as the dad. Too bad he had only a few minutes early on and a brief scene at the end. Kristen Stewart as Lisa, the sister, is frozen most of the time, which is good because she adds little except for one nicely conceived little subplot worth a few laughs. She does play the "leave-me-alone-i'm-in-love" older sister well, it's the "i'm-your-older-sister" older sister that misses. Dax Shepard as the astronaut has some really swell moments, but "look-at-me-i'm-acting" creeps in too often. He is a decent foil though in the brotherly wars that erupt over how to play the game. And the wish upon a star scenes are worthy of the arc they're provided.

The two brothers, on screen virtually the whole movie, Josh Hutcherson as Walter and Jonah Bobo as Danny, also have some fine moments. But they are raw. A more exacting and/or compassionate director should have drawn much better performances from them. What you get is certainly not distracting, you enjoy the movie without focusing on the actors, but i wonder what could have been.



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