THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

PG
Reviews

When it was first announced that Hollywood had gotten their mitts on Douglas Adams' beloved classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the author's sizeable fan base openly fretted about whether the movie version would remain faithful. The question is, faithful to what? From its humble beginnings as a BBC radio show in the late 1970s, Hitchhiker's Guide has always been a work-in-progress, one that constantly evolves to suit whatever medium it happens to be appearing in. Hence, the radio show differs from the books, which differ from the TV series, which differs from the text-based computer game. What unites the different versions-apart from the basic premise (the destruction of Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass) and main cast of characters-is Adams' distinct and instantly recognizable sense of humor. If the movie version were going to succeed, it would have to get his absurdist tone absolutely right.

So it's my pleasure to report to fans that the Hitchhiker movie nails it. Sure, the story doesn't unfold exactly the way it did in the book (or the radio show, or the TV series), but the movie does capture Adams' singular comic voice. Of course, the filmmakers had some help in that department, since the author had already completed a second draft of the screenplay before his untimely death in 2001. (Chicken Run scribe Karey Kirkpatrick was brought on board to do a final polish.) Still, it is astonishing that the studio actually allowed director Garth Jennings to retain Adams' more bizarre flights of fancy, such as the free-falling sperm whale who starts pondering the mysteries of its existence moments before becoming a whale-sized splotch on the surface of a distant planet. That decision will almost certainly cost the movie box office dollars, but it's guaranteed to make the inevitable two-disc DVD a cult favorite. Like everything associated with the Hitchhiker brand, this film will be bringing new fans into the fold 20 years from now.

In addition to tone, the other key to the film's success is casting. Jennings has assembled an excellent ensemble here, beginning with Martin Freeman (or, as he's better known in this country, Tim from "The Office") as Arthur Dent, the story's everyman hero who in the space of one morning loses both his house and his entire planet. Fortunately, Arthur's best friend-and incognito alien-Ford Prefect (Mos Def, in a wonderfully subtle comic turn) spirits him off Earth moments before it's blown to smithereens by the Vogons, an overly bureaucratic alien race with a distaste for interstellar hitchhikers. Ford and Arthur are captured and jettisoned into space, where they are improbably rescued by a passing spaceship named the Heart of Gold, which currently houses one Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, hamming it up in grand style), President of the Galaxy and legend in his own mind. The ship is also home to a manically depressed robot named Marvin (performed by Warwick Davis and exquisitely voiced by Alan Rickman) and, more importantly, Arthur's former almost-girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), who ditched the poor guy for a party-crashing Zaphod two weeks before the Earth was demolished. (In Zaphod's defense, "Wanna see my spaceship?" is a much better pick-up line than "Let's go to Cornwall.")

Speaking of the Prez, he's on a quest to find the legendary planet of Magrathea, where he hopes to learn the secret to Life, the Universe and Everything. Needless to say, the journey there is not a smooth one. Along the way, the Heart of Gold crew has a series of strangely amusing adventures including a run-in with the creepy prophet Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) and a rescue mission to the Vogon home-world. Through it all, the titular guide (voiced by Stephen Fry) is on hand to provide us with vital information about this great big galaxy of ours.

A quick word to Hitchhiker novices: Don't bother following the plot too closely because it doesn't really matter. Adams himself had trouble keeping his narrative straight and admitted to contradicting himself on several occasions. For him, the Hitchhiker series was primarily a way to crack wise about a variety of subjects, from the existence of God (or lack thereof) to the silliness of bureaucracy. Indeed, the book's lack of a traditional three-act plot was the main reason it took so long to reach the big screen. To give the movie some semblance of structure, the script adds some new story elements, most notably the romance between Arthur and Trillian. (It should be noted that, for once, Hollywood isn't to blame for this development-Adams himself wrote the romance into the screenplay.) While die-hard fans may find these additions sacrilegious, for the most part they are well-integrated into the film and don't distract from the overall tone. Some of the new material is actually on par with anything that came out of the book, such as the point-of-view gun, which, when fired at someone, will instantly make them see things from the shooter's point of view. The filmmakers should seriously consider taking out a patent on that invention...

As enjoyable as the movie is, it's not without its flaws. This is Jennings' first time helming a feature film and his inexperience shows, particularly when it comes to establishing a consistent comic rhythm within scenes. He relies too heavily on dull master shots where the actors are strewn haphazardly about the frame. And while the production design and alien creature costumes (designed by the Jim Henson shop) are excellent, the computer effects are often distractingly shoddy, as if the studio couldn't afford to finish them in time for the release. But considering all the things that could have gone wrong in the making of this picture, it's a minor miracle that it turned out as well as it did. To quote the all-knowing Guide: "Don't Panic." This is still quite clearly Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
-Ethan Alter