Despite what the movie ratings algorithms said about Zathura before I sat down and watched it, I initially had some small resemblance of hope that it might turn out to be, at the very least, an okay movie. I mean, a rehash of Jumanji, only set in space? That didn’t sound too bad, one could easily even see how that could end up being rather fun little romp under the right circumstances. Unfortunately reality has a bad habit of crushing your optimism and then giving you smack in the face for being so damn naive, so alas, the stars did not align for this movie and the result is a mess. The most positive thing that I can say about it is that casting Tim Robbins as the dad was pretty solid move, he’s very good for the whole five minutes or so that he’s actually in the movie and you kinda wish he’d stick around for the entire duration of the movie, even if in a diminished capacity. But that is about it.
While I enjoyed the core concepts behind Zathura, when you get right down to it, it just isn’t very fun to watch. I would even go as far as saying it’s a bit of a chore to get through. There are couple of key factors to this, like the fact that the two kids they cast for the lead roles simply aren’t cut out for the job. They have next to no screen presence and their chemistry with each other as the two bickering brothers is severely lacking. The brothers luckily aren’t entirely alone in their space adventure though, as they are to a degree accompanied by their mean older sister Lisa, played by at the time teenage Kristen Stewart, on this voyage to the stars. Rather that contributing anything significant to the plot or functioning as the adult figure that helps the brothers mature and get over their differences, she’s seems to be only in the story as sort of half-assed comedic relief, and that’s really about it. She feels almost like an afterthought, which just begs the question why even include her in the first place. Even after she gets defrosted (one of the early turns in the game ends up making her go into cryogenic sleep, so she turns into a human Popsicle), she still amounts to nothing, she’s just there to awkwardly get freaked out when she finds out they aren’t in Kansas anymore. It’s genuinely frustrating to see a character be so marginalized. Later on the crew is also joined by a stranded Astronaut, played by Dax Shepard, whom the game summons at one point, assumably to deliver some actual decent acting in the movie.
Another fundamental problem with the movie is that the story lacks any type of real sense of urgency. I hate to do comparisons to Jumanji since you ought to judge a movie on its own merits, but in this case it feels appropriate as both movies are very similar (both were adaptations of the works of the same author) and Jumanji frankly put just does everything so much better than Zathura. In Jumanji, you always felt like anything could happen next, so the movie had your sucked in and had your undivided attention. As things became increasingly chaotic as the game progressed, the stakes grew accordingly. The game may have began with just some small and kinda mundane nuisance like a colony of bats causing momentary fright, but it wasn’t long before the players were being attacked by a huge stampede of jungle animals, demonic apes, etc. and the chaos quickly spread outside of the house to wreck havoc on the entire community, making it imperative that the game would be finished as soon as possible. In Zathura, you don’t have really any of that. The boys are merely stranded in space, which is a dilemma, but not a particularly time sensitive one since inexplicably the house still functions as if it was on Earth, so they still have running water and electricity, there is no shortage of oxygen or heat, unless they happen to turn down the thermostat, and so forth. While the boys do get tangled in some dangerous situations, like the sudden meteor shower, it’s never particularly thrilling or feel that threatening apart from the time they encounter a killer robot, which is actually one of the few highlights in the movie since it actually has some nice visuals and offers the boys a tangible threat for a change. There’s also way too much of the brothers just twiddling their thumbs and getting mad at each other and not playing the game so that they can go back home, with no real tension or engaging drama filling the space, making their interludes largely boring to watch.
There’s also an issue of the venue, as the game of Zathura takes almost entirely in place inside the house (there’s a very brief visit to an alien ship) that the game has thrown into outer space, apparently to serve the theme of space adventures the house has been turned into a sort of spaceship by the game. This limits the scope of what you can do in the movie significantly, and the movie fails completely to do anything particularly memorable with it. Not only does the movie not use the setting to its advantage, it instead manages to take the whole lost in space angle and make it rather mundane and dull. The story had two very young kids being hijacked and stranded in space, which could have been a source for some great opportunities to play on the fears that young kids go through when they are left alone and there is no adults around to make them feel safe (as Lisa, their sister, spends most of the movie being a frozen ice sculpture), especially with a bad things like the killer robot that’s trapped in the basement lingering around, but all you get from the set up is some boring and dated CGI space visuals, a bit contrived third act where the aliens reappear and invade the house, and that’s about it. It’s painfully paint by the numbers and offers no real innovation or sparkles of brilliance.
Before I sign off, the thing that perhaps annoys me the most about this movie is that they completely squandered the potential. They had a magical board game that literally can make anything fantastical happen in a Sci-fi setting, yet just about everything the game conjures up ends up being not only boring, but also completely disappointing. There is no sense of amazement and wonder, it features next to no genuine space adventuring, very little is done in terms of space faring tropes explored, the list goes on and on. Perhaps smaller kids are able to find more enjoyment out of this but to me, as an adventure movie, this was a complete misfire.