The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Any filmmaker who dabbles with adapting popular literature into a hip, slick Hollywood film oftentimes risks a fate worse than death. When the tradition in question is Douglas Adams’ beloved tome about fate, bureaucracy, irony, space travel and dolphins, things have the potential to get nasty.
Until music video director Garth Jennings came along, the cinematic version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy had been in developmental limbo. The film was originally based on an adapted screenplay worked up by the late author (before his death) for director Jay Roach. When Roach became bogged down with other projects the project was handed off to Jennings, a video director in the vein of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
In the hands of Jennings however, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy comes about as close as you can get to recreating the feel of the BBC Radio series and the subsequent TV and novel adaptations as you can get. From the all-too-damn catchy opening number, “So Long & Thanks For All the Fish” to the perfectly stylized sets and futuristic special effects, Jennings skillfully transforms Adams words into his own visual universe. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have magical voiceover performances from Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry either.
Plot is not as important here as the absurdist wit and over-the-top characters from Adams’ imagination. However, every story needs a plotline. Thus he lifted the age-old fish out of water scenario and adapted it into a sort of hippy-esque travel space travel soap opera.
When it comes to the HGTTG, the plot is not the most important thing. What is important is the wit, sarcasm, irony and Adams’ subtle commentaries on the world around us. However, even he knew that every story needs a plotline. Thus he lifted the age-old fish out of water scenario and adapted it into a sort of hippy-esque travel space travel soap opera.
It opens with the frustrated Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, The Office) trying to save his house from demolition by a group of dastardly developers who want to put a freeway on top of it. His futile protest comes to an end when his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) stops by for a chat as he lay down in front a bulldozer. A seemingly distressed Prefect urgently wants Arthur to get up and go with him to the local pub. After some chicanery, fast double talk and slick verbosity Prefect gets the construction crew to hold off on their demolition long enough for him and Arthur to get a pint.
When they get to the pub, Arthur’s world is turned asunder when he learns that the world is about to end. As Arthur becomes more and more unhinged, Prefect explains that he is in fact not human but actually a sort of galactic ‘hitchhiker,’ compiling information for the latest edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a sort of cosmic interactive encyclopedia of the universe. He also tells Arthur that the Earth is about to be destroyed by the despicable and bureaucratic Vogon Destructor Fleet, who is destroying the Earth to make way for a superhighway.
All of this comes as a bit of a downer to Arthur who suddenly remembers that his house is in grave peril. He rushes home form the pub just in time to sees his dwelling in total ruins. Arthur has very little time however to lament his plight because the Vogon fleet appears overhead and issues its final ultimatum to Earth before effortlessly reducing the planet to rubble. Fortunately the fast thinking Ford Prefect, realizes that time is indeed up and hitches a ride inside a Vogon ship.
Once inside the Vogon ship Arthur learns more about The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He also discovers first hand that the Vogons abuse their prisoners by tying them up and reciting their legendarily awful poetry before jettisoning them off the ship. As the intrepid travelers are cast off into the blackness of space towards certain death they defy improbability by hitching a ride on a stolen spaceship. The ship is piloted by the zany two-headed Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and a human girl named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) that Arthur once met at a party. Also aboard is one hopelessly paranoid android named Marvin (Alan Rickman) who is much smarter than the crew realize. Much to their chagrin, Arthur and Ford discover that Zaphod is bouncing around the galaxy in search of the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. With so much action and wackiness in the galaxy, it’s a good thing that we have the polite and courteous narration of Stephen Fry to sort it all out for us.
Although Jennings smartly retained the work’s British feel by perfectly casting Freeman Fry and Rickman, he did make a few casting missteps. We’ll start with Sam Rockwell, whose over the top shenanigans conjure up images of an over-caffinated Owen Wilson in space and gets really annoying after about fifteen minutes. Then there is Mos Def who isn’t really all that bad, but unfortunately isn’t all that good either. John Malkovich is thrown into the mix as well but unfortunately his schtick of just being himself and calling it acting has gotten very, very old. In the end, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is really held together by Martin Freeman’s dead on, completely lost performance as Arthur Dent, Zooey Deshanel’s nerd-o-rific sexiness as the mathy Trillian and Bill Nighy’s bombastic fiord master, Slartibartfast.
Despite all of these drawbacks, Jennings’ version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy should not be dismissed as an ironic, sardonic and mostly harmless production. It is for the most part, a lot of fun. Yes, at times it gets a little heavy handed in trying to be too weird, but that’s ok considering the source material. Yes, it does cater to a fringe audience that will be identified easily as the ones perfectly repeating the dialogue in a darkened theater. However before giving up on it, one should remember that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a perfect example of how Hollywood makes a film with a built in niche audience and hopes to build on it.
With this film, purists like me who read the five books will pick it apart and find elements of it that they like and don’t like. Likewise those that generally prefer science fiction will definitely derive a certain pleasure from the experience. However, someone who has never delved into Adams’ world will either really love its inventive originality and overt zaniness or completely hate it. But no matter which side of the movie going fence you’re on, Don’t Panic! Just go see The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and enjoy the wild, crazy trip.