A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.

Zathura

People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

Control is Just an Illusion, Friend.

Lots of people sneer at the Control Freak archetype. I do not understand these people. They seem to think loss of control would be a good time—like a roller coaster, perhaps, which is actually a tightly controlled construct when functioning correctly and not killing people. Also people choose whether or not to get on the thing, thereby exercising control; so this is not the best illustration, though I see it used a lot.

Loss of control is not an amusement park ride, friend. It is death, dismemberment, famine, enmity, destruction, financial loss, and horrifying social situations that make you wish to God you’d stayed home with a cat on your lap instead of venturing into the greater world. It is falling asleep at the wheel and having the trailer of a semi sheer off the top of your car, along with your head. It is coming home from vacation to find one of the last of your child’s unexpected litter of gerbils dead in the cage because they started fighting and the house-sitters couldn’t spare the time to make a damn phone call to ask you what to do. The root of the desire for control is fear. And fear in this world is not without cause.

My own usual response to fear is to put a lot of energy into creating an airtight system that eliminates risk. But this is not without cost. Go too far with this sort of thing and you will find yourself desiring secrecy even when there’s no need for it. You’ll want to check things all the time and make sure all is well. You’ll suppress emotion, because emotion must be regulated by reason in order for the system to function, and then when it’s time for emotion to have its say, you won’t be able to find it.

I don’t really have a grip on this problem. I honestly don’t. I believe it is right for reason to regulate emotion, for cause and effect to be understood and managed, and for risk to be taken seriously. But I have lived forty-four years, and I see now that I have feared too much and modeled some not-so-healthy behaviors to my kids. I’ve been too quick to circle the wagons when things got rough. There were friendships I didn’t nurture, hospitality I didn’t show, and unasked-for advice I didn’t give but should have. I meant well. I wanted to keep from making mistakes. But fear of making mistakes can lead to sins of omission. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The sad irony is that the point of control is to protect something, but too much control is destructive. To eliminate all risk is to smother life itself.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” That’s our friend C.S. Lewis talking, and he knew.

The assumption behind a preoccupation with control is that I can in fact control everything, that it all depends on me. To this unspeakable hubris I can only plead guilty.

And therein lies the system’s flaw. I can’t control everything, and even if I could control half the things I’d like to control, I wouldn’t have the wisdom to manage them properly. That’s how supervillains are made.

Three nights ago, I saw Frozen with my youngest child. This is a story about a princess, Elsa, who has the power to create ice at will and sculpt it into whatever formations she chooses—crystals, pillars, flurries, drifts. Her creations are beautiful, and great fun for Elsa and her younger sister, Anna.

But as the opening song warns, ice is beautiful! powerful! dangerous! cold! Elsa loses control over her power and hurts Anna. The aftermath is a nightmare of shock, trauma, fear, and guilt. Elsa’s parents sternly warn her that this must never happen again. From that day forward, Elsa’s life is terribly altered.

elsa

The words fear, love, power, and control all occur in the opening song, and these forces dominate the story. Power carries risk; risk leads to fear; and the response to fear is to try to exercise more control. After Anna’s accident, Elsa focuses all her energy into maintaining control over her power. Because the manifestations have emotional triggers, this involves severe emotional suppression. Her efforts leave her mentally exhausted and socially isolated. Worst of all, Anna, formerly her closest companion, has had her memory wiped of the knowledge of Elsa’s power, leaving her confused and hurt by her sister’s rejection. So a construct designed to keep Anna from being hurt just ends up hurting her in a different way.

Eventually things come to a head, as they are wont to do in Disney movies and in life. After Elsa loses control again and unwittingly freezes the entire kingdom, she flees to a mountain where she thinks she can do no further damage. But Anna follows, refusing to be kept at bay any longer. Cornered and pressured, Elsa struggles to maintain control; but in trying to stifle her emotion, she only warps it, and it breaks out in unwanted and terrifying manifestations. The more she panics, the worse things get.

Watching Elsa’s frantic and futile efforts, I thought, This is exactly like living by the law. Legalism is all about damage control. It can never produce any active good, despite what those who live by it think. It seeks to quell sin, but it only produces rebellion.

Control proves a failure, and Anna is hurt again, this time apparently fatally. Only then does Elsa learn that the true protection, the only force capable of managing her potentially deadly power, is not control at all, but love.

This changes everything. Anna is healed, the kingdom is restored, and Elsa’s entire existence blossoms into a thing of glorious possibility. Transformations abound: death into life, conformity into freedom, fear into love. Elsa is able to not only be near people again, but to relax, to laugh, to play.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t mean to be flippant by quoting the apostle John in connection with a Disney movie. To be clear, John is speaking of the very reasonable fear of a just judgment–a guilty fear, not the fear of ordinary pain or loss. And the perfect love that’s capable of casting out that fear is the love of God demonstrated in Christ’s propitiation. This is wonderful news for the world, and my friend Jim gives an excellent treatment of the subject here.

But I think I do not go too far in saying that fear, when brooded over too long by an overstimulated mind, is the enemy of love. It cripples relationships, poisons joy, steals hope, and confuses emotion to the point where you honestly don’t know what you feel.

So what is the solution? Some sort of let-love-have-its-way scenario? Bursting into song and dance on a mountaintop like a Disney princess? Maybe it’s just recognizing that the supreme level of control sought by those of “freak” status is just an illusion anyway. Terrible things will happen, despite your best efforts to secure yourself against all shock and alarm. You will be blindsided–if not by the thing you’re guarding against, then by something else. That’s what “blindsided” means: you don’t see it coming. And the energy you’re spending on maintaining a defensive system would be better spent on loving the people around you before they’re taken, which they most certainly will be at some point unless you’re taken from them first. Yes, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. They’re worth the fear and discomfort and uncertainty and vulnerability–wonderfully worth all this and more.

Counting the Cost…or Not

If you happen to be the hero of a folk song and your mother gives you a warning, you had better listen to your mother, or you will soon be dead. Don’t take your guns to town, son—and Johnny, tae the green woods dinnae gang, for crying out loud.

I’ve written before about how the part of the brain responsible for good judgment is the last to mature in a young adult. There’s nothing very startling in this; it’s pretty much self-evident. But some months back I heard something else on the subject that really gave me pause.

Generally speaking, older people think in terms of risk, and younger people think in terms of reward.

On the surface, there’s nothing very startling here either. Of course older people think in terms of risk; we’ve lived long enough to experience the repercussions of ill-advised behaviors. Pain and regret are good teachers. When you’ve seen firsthand how things can go horribly wrong, you tread more lightly next time around. They don’t call it the School of Hard Knocks for nothing.

But here’s the thing that really caught my attention. For a younger person, it’s not so much that he underestimates risk; his assessment of the risk of a given course of action is actually pretty accurate. He just values the reward more.

Youth doesn’t count the cost. It ventures all, spends the wad, stays up all night. It beats its fool head against any of a number of obstacles until at last, bloody and bruised but unbeaten, it reaches the prize—or not. It is lavish, extravagant, and far better grounded in clear-eyed realism than is commonly supposed. Whether we call it passionate or merely foolhardy depends largely on whether or not it succeeds.

Obviously we can’t all live that way all the time, or like Jock o’ Braidislee and Billy Joe, we’d all soon be dead. There is much to be said for circling the wagons and protecting what you have. But middle age is sometimes a little too quick to undervalue and upbraid youth’s impetuosity. The best course isn’t always the one that looks the most prudent, and what we call wisdom may be fear or indolence in disguise. Inaction or calcification can kill you just as dead as a gunfighter’s bullet or a forester’s arrow.

For all that, I don’t think youth and middle age have to be at odds. Maybe the truth is that we need each other more than we admit.