Space ships are cool, especially when you’re six. This would be the bare-bones premise of Zathura: A Space Adventure, in which young Danny (Jonah Bobo) essentially turns his house into a space ship, floating through the starry sky somewhere near Saturn, buffeted by the occasional meteor shower or malevolent alien. That he’s accompanied by his 10-year-old brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) complicates and helps to complete the voyage. For indeed, this is a tale of brotherly bonding.
It doesn’t start out that way. Danny’s feeling rather shut out by Walter, who in turn feels besieged by the demands of a sibling who dotes on him. Older and wiser and increasingly impatient. Walter just wants to be left alone, especially as he’s also feeling abandoned by dad (Tim Robbins), working overtime to pay for two homes (he’s recently divorced) and feeling guilty about doing exactly that. The film opens as dad’s playing catch with the boys — one at a time, as the other watches from the porch. Each son vies for dad’s attention in his own way, Danny acquiescent and eager, Walter affecting cynicism and haranguing Danny for his missed plays. Though dad wants to do the right thing, he’s also distracted by an auto ad campaign deadline (his refrain: “I gotta work for an hour”).
The boys seek their own distractions, Walter settling into a chair by the tv, and Danny eventually finding a circa-’50s board game in the basement, a game just begging to be played. When dad has to go to the office, he leaves them in the care of their teenaged sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), still asleep in the afternoon as she’s looking forward to a night out. Her resentment of the assignment could not be more visible, as she heads back to bed as soon as dad’s out the door; her punishment for this irresponsibility is equally overt, and not a little uncomfortable.
The board game, called “Zathura,” echoes the game in Jumanji, another movie based on a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (also the literary source for Polar Express). David Koepp and John Kamps’ screenplay focuses on the brothers’ relationship, as this is worked out “metaphorically” through encounters with hostile monsters, a deranged robot, and a “stranded astronaut” (Dax Shepard). Once they begin the game, the rules assert, Danny and Walter are unable to stop until they “finish,” meaning that they need to find the reason they’re playing, and, of course, reconcile with one another.
Their adventures are as episodic as the board game scenario suggests: each boy takes his turn, picking up cards that say he’s “promoted to star ship captain” or has been “caught cheating,” which means “automatic ejection.” At first they play against one another, and soon they come to see they must coordinate in order to get back to earth, as they’re promised that “pieces reset at the end of each game.” The boys find themselves battling a large, very aggressive robot (it sets upon them, muttering, “Alien life form, must destroy!”), and the reptilian Zorgons, nasty, organized, and fond of eating meat (leading the boys to understand that they are, in fact, “meat”).
As they’re scrabbling to fight off these sequential imminent disasters, the brothers don’t realize that they set off some other mechanism that turns Lisa’s bedroom into a deep freeze — she remains literally immobilized for the most of the film’s running time. When she does thaw, she’s granted a limited gamut of roles, from screaming victim to gushy girl with a crush to action-heroic savior.
But as Jon Favreau’s movie is most interested in the boys’ relationship, Lisa is best described as plot device, convenient witness and occasional instigator for their realizations and efforts. In this, she’s aided by the astronaut, who shows up during Danny’s turn (he’s instructed to rescue this stranger and then attached to the astronaut, who identifies Danny as the one who “spun me”). This provides the younger boy with an eventual conflict, as the astronaut and Walter make different demands. “Who’s your brother, him or me?” asks Walter, though he has made no use of this designation of loyalty before their current crisis.
Danny wants to hang on to both relationships, it’s clear to him and you that the astronaut, having some experience floating through space alone, afraid, and resourceful, brings practical information, such as how to “hide the house” from the light-seeking Zorgons. At the same time, Walter is his brother, no matter how ugly he’s been to Danny in the past, and that makes him, as the astronaut observes, “all you have.”
Okay, so the point is made, more than once. This focus also allows a strange moment where Lisa develops a crush on her own brother. She doesn’t know he’s her brother, of course, as he’s only one of the fictions/metaphors encountered during the expedition, which, let’s recall, has nothing to do with her, as she’s not playing the game and never has a “turn.” All this makes Zathura a game for boys, like so many others.