The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Director : Garth Jennings
Screenplay : Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick (based on the book by Douglas Adams)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Martin Freeman (Arthur Dent), Sam Rockwell (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Zooey Deschanel (Trillian), Mos Def (Ford Prefect), Bill Nighy (Slartibartfast), Alan Rickman (voice of Marvin), John Malkovich (Humma Kavula), Anna Chancellor (Questular Rontok), Stephen Fry (Narrator), Helen Mirren (voice of Deep Thought)
Since the late 1970s, The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy has appeared in numerous incarnations across every conceivable medium. Originally created by Douglas Adams, a Cambridge graduate and friend of several members of Monty Python, it originated as a 12-part radio series on the BBC in 1978 and 1980, after which Adams reworked it into two books, which were then used to created a British television series in 1981. It was turned into a text-based game in 1984, and has since spawned numerous book sequels by Adams and uncountable web sites from the legion of fans who relish his snarky combination of absurdist humor and science fiction.
The new movie version, directed by music video veteran Garth Jennings, has been long in gestation, with most of the screenplay having been penned by Adams himself before his death in 2001 (it was completed by Karey Kirkpatrick, who wrote the screenplay for Chicken Run). I am not very familiar with the world of the Hitchhiker's Guide and am thus in no position to discuss how it compares to its other various incarnations.
From the position of a newbie, I can say that the film version is a bit of a mixed bag in that it is frequently quite funny, and even without insight into Adams' universe of spin-offs and variations, it is not hard to discern the genuine wit and intellect fueling the fire. Yet, at the same time, the narrative is so disjointed and aimless that it begins to tax the patience of those not completely tuned into Adams' frequency. Less a story that a series of setpieces of varied success, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy wears too thin by the end, unable to sustain any real comic or intellectual momentum.
The hero of the story is a slightly befuddled British twit named Arthur Dent (played by The Office's Martin Freeman). On the same day he learns that his house is going to be demolished in order to build a freeway, he learns that the entire planet is about to be destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass (this pairing of a routine event and a universe-sized exaggeration of the same event is key to Adam's vision of using science fiction to address -- that is, parody -- social conventions, bureaucracy, and politics). Arthur learns of Earth's impending doom from his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who turns out to be an alien from another planet. Because Arthur once saved Ford's live, Ford saves his by whisking him off the planet seconds before it is detonated.
And so the story is set in motion, with Arthur and Ford banging around from one part of the universe to another, much like a couple of pin balls. They hop aboard a cruiser stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the universe's bizarre president, outlandishly played by Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) as a scenery-chewing combination of George W. Bush and an '80s hair-metal god. Arthur finds himself in competition with Beeblebrox for the affections of Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), the only other Earth survivor. The story's villains are the Volgons, enormous, hump-backed creatures whose twin obsessions with bad poetry and bureaucratic pettiness make them all but insufferable.
To describe any more of the plot would take too much space, as there is little connection among all the various strands. To the movie's benefit, there are a few genuinely funny scenes and quite a bit of sly, just-under-the-radar humor that makes you constantly smile, particularly from the robot Marvin (marvelously voiced by Alan Rickman), whose manic depression and bleak worldview make C-3PO look like a cheery motivational speaker. Some of the visuals are appropriately astounding, especially once Arthur meets Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy), a custom planet builder. The Hitchhiker's Guide itself, which exists largely to explain all the bizarre aspects of the universe to Arthur (and, by extension, the audience), is a clever gimmick, with animated segments that look like iPod commercials.
Still, as a whole, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy plays like a half-cocked list of intriguing ideas without anything to bring them together. Some of Adams' conceits are extremely clever and thought-provoking, and much of his dark humor will remind you of a low-key version of Monty Python (his disdain for bureaucracy is shared by Terry Gilliam, whose Brazil the film sometimes resembles). At the same time, though, some of the humor and ideas just don't translate well to the screen, which only emphasizes the slap-dash, arguably sloppy nature of the story.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Touchstone Pictures