It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The opening credits of "Zathura" are closeups of an old science-fiction board game, a game that should have existed in real life and specifically in my childhood, but which was created for this movie. In these days of high-tech video games, it's remarkable that kids once got incredibly thrilled while pushing little metal racing cars around a cardboard track: The toy car was yours, and you invested it with importance and enhanced it with fantasy and pitied it because it was small, like you were.
Such games were weapons against the ennui of endless Saturdays. In "Zathura," time hangs heavily on the hands of Walter and Danny Budwing, two brothers, one 10, one 6, whose father has left them alone in the house for a few hours. Not quite alone: Their teenage sister Lisa is allegedly baby-sitting, from her vantage point under the covers of her bed with her iPod. Walter and Danny fight, as brothers do; Danny hides in the dumbwaiter (a device that will come as news to many of the kids watching this movie), and Walter lowers him into the basement, which for every 6-year-old is a place filled with ominous noises and alarming, unseen menaces.
There Danny (Jonah Bobo ) discovers the Zathura board game and tries to get Walter (Josh Hutcherson) to play it with him. Walter would rather watch sports on TV. Danny plays by himself. The game is an ingenious metal contraption; you wind it up and push a button, and your little car moves around a track, and the game emits a card for you to read. Danny has Walter help him read it: Meteor Shower. Take Evasive Action. Just about then the meteors start showering, sizzling through the living room ceiling and drilling through the floor, pulverizing coffee tables and floor lamps.
The game is a portal to an alternative universe of startling adventures; the movie wisely attempts no rational explanation. It resembles the game in "Jumanji" (1995), which ported its players into a world of fearsome beasts and harrowing dangers, and indeed is based on a book by the same author, Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote the book that inspired "The Polar Express" (2004). The differences between the three movies are fundamental: "The Polar Express" is a visionary fable, "Jumanji" is an uneasy thrill ride whose young heroes endure dangers too real to be funny, and Zathura is the only board game in history that lives up to the picture on its box.