This is one of those rare instances when Orson Scott Card’s rivet test fails us.
After all, there is no shortage of rivets on display in Zathura and yet it clearly is not science fiction.
Instead, it is in many respects a film about SF — or perhaps it would be more correct to say about a certain era of SF, or even a certain attitude about SF.
I imagine that a lot of people would simply dismiss it as a copy of Jumanji. After all, both films feature a small group of people trapped inside the strange — but extremely hostile — sur-reality created by the titular game and have to play their way through to escape.
However, Zathura is based on another book by Chris Van Allsburg, one which he intended as a sort of sideways sequel to Jumanji, only set in an all-new world. Which, you have to admit, it better than simply recycling your last book.
And, yes, Jumanji was very much in mind when they mind this one. After all, the production started out to be Jumanji 2 to mark its tenth anniversary and they made sure that the connection between the two was emphasized in the advertising.
It is also worth noting that actor/director/writer/producer Jon Favreau directed. This is one of his earlier films, made not long after Elf and long before his current, highly acclaimed work on The Mandalorian and for Marvel. I‘m sure he had a lot to do with Zathura‘s mischievous and light-hearted charm. While it may not be as good as Jumanji, it certainly gives the earlier film a tough race. It is a smaller and more intimate film, with most of the action set inside a single house. I suspect that may reflect a smaller budget. Whatever the reason, it is a sound choice and it makes this a very different film from its predecessor. It also works very well with the story they are telling — after all, space is nothing but vast emptiness and the larger part of any space epic is going to take place within the narrow confines of a spaceship (or spaceborne family residence, whichever is the case). Another important touch is that Jon used a lot of practical effects and model work, which give the film a great look.
What truly distinguishes Zathura is its marvelous evocation of one of the most colorful eras of science fiction — even if it isn’t one that most modern fans have much use for. The Thirties saw one of the biggest SF booms ever, thanks to Buck Rogers (and later to Flash Gordon).
Yes, “Buck Rogers” has become a pejorative term these days, but the truth is that Buck was the one who thrust Science Fiction into the homes of millions of people who’d never heard of it before — along with countless clunky and overly-colorful tin toys and pretend ray guns by the likes of Louis Marx (and those ray guns set off a price war between Macy‘s and Gimbel‘s that left both stores in shambles).
Visually, it remains one of the most cohesive eras of SF design, even if there is a certain rather crude and angular quality to most of their designs. I have to give Zathura a lot of credit for how well they have captured that look — the robot and alien ships could easily have been some of the old toys my Dad saved from his childhood, and the game itself reminds me of some of the metal playsets that were still for sale in the loft of the old General Store in my Mom’s home town when I was a kid.
I particularly love the little detail on the game that, when you pull the lever that spins the dial that will tell you how many millions of miles you will move each turn, only the first digit actually turns! The rest are just painted on.
Which is the sort of detail you found on these old toys.
As was true back in the days of Buck Rogers, the “science” of Zathura doesn’t have much to do with real science, from aliens searching for (and finding) small amounts of heat in space (despite the fact it couldn’t radiate in a vacuum) to air in space and a shooting star that happens to be a big ball of fire. It is also a little anachronistic in places with references to things that were virtually unknown in the Thirties, like black holes, wormholes and even a temporal paradox — but it certainly doesn’t take away from our enjoyment of this wonderful little family film.
Sadly, the more obsessive and geeky among us probably won’t be able to relax and just this one for what it is. That seems a real shame to me. I suppose you could pretend that the worn and battered Zathura game is some sort of sophisticated electronic dohickey, projecting a bubble of virtual reality, or opening into some other universe with very different rules from ours.
But that’s just silly — and what’s more, it denies the real magic of this film.
And that is really what this film gives us, a glimpse of a magical era, when the future looked bright and cheerful, where science allowed us to build new wonders and brave new worlds.
Anything was possible.
…Until they set off that amazing new Buck Rogers weapon at Hiroshima and the world was never as bright and cheerful and optimistic again
…Or as clunky and covered with painted rivets.