The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick
directed by Garth Jennings
starring Sam Rockwell, Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschael and Mos Def
review by Stephen Notley
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a long history of iteration, incarnating at various points as a radio play, a series of books, a text-based computer game and a BBC television series (plus probably other things like trading card games and the like). For a story that's been told in so many ways in so many formats, the question becomes: what is to be gained by making it as a theatrical movie? I figured the biggest plus would be the addition of modern-day special effects, and I thought Sam Rockwell would make a fabulous Zaphod Beeblebrox. Turns out I was exactly right.
Adams purists may well take issue with the film; indeed, an Adams biographer published a witheringly pedantic review of the film a couple of weeks ago. And it is true -- many of the cherished jokes from the earlier incarnations have been jettisoned, leading to odd moments of emptiness where Guide fans expect gags. But it should be remembered that Adams himself wrote the screenplay, so many of the more controversial decisions --the ditching of loved but well-worn jokes, the pumping up of the romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian, the second-act detours to Humma Kavula's planet and Vogsphere, the Vogon's homeworld-- were Adams's. Rightly or wrongly, Adams was reconstructing the story as a Movie, so he did Movie things like adding arcs for the characters and fleshing out ideas only hinted at in the books/radio plays/text games/TV series and, most importantly, fronting and foremosting the idea that this is a Movie so it's all about the images.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (movie version) is all about design and visual flights of fancy. The tropes of space-based science fiction films are so common --spaceships, exploding planets, aliens, weird gadgets-- that it's hard to come up with anything fresh and original. THGttG (MV) succeeds on this point again and again, from the free-wheeling spherical Heart of Gold (Zaphod's spaceship) to the hovering arrays of Vogon Constructor ships to the goofy ball-shaped handguns to the dreary concrete canyons of Vogsphere to the lumbering, fleshy-faced Vogons that inhabit them. Where, say, the TV series is a dense replication of the verbal humor from the radio plays and books, the film is lighter, breezier, dedicated more to visual comedy and "Ooh, that's cool!" moments.
The other home run in the movie, of course, is Sam Rockwell, he of Charlie's Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Galaxy Quest, and a bunch of other movies in smaller roles. He's a fiercely physical actor with oddball timing, and his hey-man over-the-top winking, grinning hipster take on Zaphod is a pleasure to watch. Indeed, it's a measure of how important he is that when he's stupidified halfway through the movie by an unfortunate plot choice, much of the air leaks out of the film.
But not all the air. Martin Freeman, Tim from BBC's The
Office, makes an enjoyable Arthur Dent, trading in Simon Jones's befuddled
Englishman persona from radio play and TV series for a wryer, more romantically
energized protagonist. Mos Def makes a reasonable Ford Prefect, offering
inappropriate "Sorry your planet got destroyed" hugs and
space-scenester riffs with Zaphod while Zooey Deschanel breathes more life and
charm into her Trillian than any who've gone before her. The movie features
exerpts from the Guide itself, and while they're not as perfect as the
blatantly perfect animated Book segments of the TV series, they have a cool
flat-color designy look that fill the screen with aplomb. The rattling,
super-zooming access elevators of the Magrathean factory floor are wonders to
behold, and previous-incarnation fans can smile at the various nods such as TV
series Marvin the Android in a Vogonish queue or Simon Jones as the automated
Magrathea message. The only element that really falls flat, sadly, is the movie
version of Marvin, performed jointly by Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman,
amusingly visualized but just not as funny.
So, by all means go. Go if you've never heard/read/played/seen the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and if you have, go also, because the effects and Rockwell's Zaphod rule the school.