Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #83

Fear can hold you prisoner.
Hope can set you free.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd September 1994 (USA)
UK Release: 17th February 1995
First Seen: TV, c.1999

Stars
Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder, Mystic River)
Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Invictus)
Bob Gunton (Demolition Man, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls)

Director
Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Mist)

Screenwriter
Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Green Mile)

Based on
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King.

The Story
When Andy Dufrense is incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary, he soon finds himself helping the corrupt warden money-launder his bribes. With a measure of protection from the guards, Andy’s common decency leads him to try to improve life for his fellow inmates, all the while thriving on the hope he’ll one day get out.

Our Heroes
Andy Dufrense is an intelligent fella, who earns himself protection and privileges by helping with the guards’ finances, and befriends fellow inmates by overhauling the prison library. He’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and her lover, despite claiming he’s innocent — like everyone else in Shawshank. Conversely, his new best friend, Red — the film’s narrator — is the only guilty man in Shawshank. He’s the guy you go to if you want anything smuggled in, like, say, a rock hammer…

Our Villains
Warden Samuel Norton is outwardly a good Christian and forward-thinking prison governor, but is actually a corrupt and vicious sonuvabitch, only too happy to use Andy’s skills to fiddle the books — and punish him harshly for any signs of dissent. His right-hand-man is the captain of the guards, Hadley, who’s not above giving a wayward prisoner a life-altering beating, or worse…

Best Supporting Character
The prison’s librarian, Brooks, who’s been locked up for almost 50 years. The old chap gets paroled, but the outside world has become a very different place by 1954, and he has a heartbreaking fate.

Memorable Quote
“The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” — Andy Dufresne

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Memorable Scene
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy comes across a record. He puts it on the turntable, locks the door, and switches on the PA system, broadcasting opera to the entire prison. Guards and prisoners alike stop where they stand to listen. Meanwhile, the warden bangs on the door and demands Andy turn the music off. He leans toward the record player… and turns it up. The insubordination will cost him, but, for a few minutes, the beautiful music makes the prisoners feel free.

Making of
The American Humane Association monitored filming that involved Brooks’ pet crow. During a scene where it’s fed a maggot, the AHA objected — because it was cruel to the maggot. They demanded the filmmakers use one that had died from natural causes, which was duly found.

Awards
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Writing)

What the Critics Said
“The mood swings rigorously through every emotion as the cranky, wiseguy and downright crazed array of criminals bare the brunt of the turbulent life within the doomy Shawshank catacomb. […] If you’re miserable enough to look for gripes then, yes, it does drift on too long and who needs prison buggery again? Yet the ending has such poetic completeness you’re too busy contentedly chuckling to worry about sore behinds. This may have confounded American audiences — it flopped big-time on planet Yank — but a more divine movie experience you will not find this side of Oscardom. […] If you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption.” — Ian Nathan, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“it has these amazing feel good moments yet it doesn’t feel contrived. Most of us film lovers can see right through that. If Shawshank was guilty of that, it wouldn’t have stayed in the number one spot for all these years. […] I think there are a lot of things that make The Shawshank Redemption such a widely loved film and the movie just gets so many things “right” that they all combine to give us something spectacular: Feel good moments like the beer & opera scenes (which never fail to move me no matter how many times I watch this movie). Andy & Red’s friendship. The lesser characters such as Brooks & Heywood (and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooks Was Here” theme from Thomas Newman). Seeing the posters on the wall change, showing the passage of time. Alexandre Dumbass. The pet bird. Rita Hayworth. And, of course, the overall message of hope. More than anything, though, I think it’s Stephen King’s story and Darabont’s ability to give us scenes of pure beauty in a movie based someplace as awful as a prison” — table9mutant, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

The Godfather sat seemingly unassailable atop IMDb’s Top 250 for nine years, until The Dark Knight kicked it off, not everyone agreed, and when the dust settled Shawshank was the new #1, a position it’s now held for eight years. Naturally that means there’s been a backlash in some circles. It’s a particularly snooty kind of reaction in general, I find, probably because Shawshank is exactly the kind of movie primed to emerge as a consensus favourite: it has drama and darkness, but also humour and optimism, and elicits emotions across the spectrum — it’s neither too grim to depress people into not enjoying it, nor too sentimental to make them do that mock “throwing up” noise some people do when things get really schmaltzy.

I wager some people confuse the notion of “consensus favourite” with “produced by committee”, which sound similar — a large group of people coming to agree on something — but are actually very different. The latter typically produces bland work that no one loves; something that wouldn’t curry favour with the former. Is The Shawshank Redemption the greatest movie ever made? Not in my opinion. I’d wager not in the opinion of most of the people who’ve given it a score on IMDb that’s contributed to it being #1. But it is a very good film indeed — and, clearly, most of us can agree on that.

#84 will be… not a fucking Merlot.