The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
In Innsbruck in 1971, young British hitchhiker Douglas Adams looked up at the night sky and thought what a good idea it would be if someone sat down and wrote a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (based roughly on a popular travel guide about hitchhiking around Europe that he was using on his journey)… or at least that's how he tells the story. From this germ of an idea came a series of novels, a radio series, a computer game, a TV series, a couple of plays and a film – but not necessarily in that order!
The film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the latest in this long line of incarnations and evolutions of the story of hapless Brit Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and his adventures with Betelgeusan best mate Ford Prefect (Mos Def) after the Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass by extraordinarily bureaucratic Vogons. On their travels they get picked up by on-the-run Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who's trying to escape capture after having 'borrowed' the most advanced spaceship in existence, the Heart of Gold. With him is Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), another escapee from Earth, and long-suffering Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), a paranoid android afflicted with Genuine People Personalities™ and 'a brain the size of a planet'.
Naturally there are differences in every version of Hitchhiker's, as Douglas Adams did lots of editing to each particular incarnation. And although Adams died in 2001, before the film went into production, he had already completed most of the work on the screenplay and the final script was very much based on Douglas' final version. All of the substantive new additions (that is, those characters, events, and ideas not present in the novels or radio series) originated from Adams himself, including the Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) storyline, the Point of View gun, and the 'paddle slapping' sequence on Vogsphere. Adams also tweaked the relationship between Arthur and Trillian – the storyline most viewers will probably assume was 'meddled with' by the studio. So while we may never have a definitive answer of what changes were made from Adams' final draft, that's more to do with his tragic early death than anything else.
Any adaptation of something that's attained cult status is guaranteed to have fanboys and naysayers eager to either see it succeed massively or fail miserably. And The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is no exception to this rule. But aside from the debates over which version is the purest and which he best, the fact remains that to successfully bring the story to the silver screen it needed to be simplified and condensed into under two hours while keeping its roots in science-fiction and comedy. Honestly (and as a massive fan of previous incarnations), I really enjoyed the film. Noticing the changes helped me realise just how tricky a job the development must have been, and I think the tighter storyline works well. I know I should jump up and down and complain about the various changes, but in a way they helped me appreciate all the versions of the tale all the more – including this cinematic adaptation. I didn't even mind Trillian becoming an American! But then, I think you have to accept this is no literal translation of radio series, TV shows or book – if you are expecting any of these then you're better off seeking them out themselves. This film is a new evolution of the Hitchhiker's tale, one that works within the medium and also helps bring the humour and the characters to a new audience who can always then go back and search out its roots.
Of course the casting helps too. Martin Freeman is a superb choice for Arthur Dent, the slightly gormless Brit who finds himself in a remarkable position that pushes him to (and at times beyond) his personality limits. Mos Def, though certainly an unusual choice for Ford Prefect, does really well in my opinion. Instead of a very brash, alien Ford, instead he's a more thoughtful character, just wacky enough to pass as more-than-human but not enough to detract from Zaphod's über-zaniness. And speaking of Zaphod, Sam Rockwell shines in the role as the crazy, hyper-dynamic Galactic President. As you might be guessing by now, I wasn't actually disappointed by any of the cast. It was particularly nice to see a solid portrayal of Trillian which allows her to function not merely as love interest, but also remembers that the character was originally written as a brilliant astrophysicist. And bringing in Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin is simply inspired! With such good casting for the primary roles, it's no surprise to encounter a number of other solid and enjoyable appearances in the supporting cast, including Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, the League of Gentlemen as assorted Vogons, John Malkovich as Humma Kavula, and the further voice talents of Helen Mirren as Deep Thought and Bill Bailey as the short-lived sperm whale at Magrathea. And last but certainly not least, Stephen Fry also plays a massive role, voicing the book itself… which benefits from much of the exposition and also the very unique wittiness of Adams' writing. The book's narration is also a help in keeping the plot tight as it makes a voice-over for exposition a viable possibility.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is at its heart a science-fiction/humour hybrid, and as such there's a bunch of aliens and special effects to get just right. While most of us may have fond memories of Zaphod's somewhat unconvincing extra appendages from the early 80s TV show, it's quite a relief that the effects here are not so much in another league as in a completely different universe. Wheeling Jim Henson's Creature Workshop in to breathe life into all the aliens was another great move by the film-makers. Marvin and (particularly) the Vogons - among many more subtle 'critters' that inhabit the Hitchhiker's film universe - all look so much more believable than some CGI creations. Not that CGI hasn't been used here, mind you; it just coexists with other special effects to help make everything as believable as possible. I also liked how the new interpretation of Zaphod's rather unique anatomy was handled, and Marvin will always be a favourite… but the sequences with Humma Kavula and on Magrathea really show off the special effects particularly well.
It's hard to believe that this is director Garth Jennings' first outing in charge of a feature film. (He was previously better known as a music video director.) But I believe that in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy he has found a remarkable showcase which should assist his future career no end. As I said earlier, it's a difficult task to take something so well-loved and so likely to bring criticism over changes and casting and to turn it into a fun, enjoyable film heavily drawing on previous material. Getting the right balance of performances from a troupe of talented actors and managing to pitch the comedy just right is just as skilful. It's also great that Jennings and his team put in little nods to the fans throughout, so that those who know the material really well can almost tell that the person in charge of the project had a great respect for Adams' original material. These touches include the original theme music (the Eagle's 'Journey of the Sorcerer') appearing in the film, the TV Marvin showing up on Vogsphere, and Simon Jones (who played Arthur Dent in the TV version of Hitchhiker's) as a ghostly image from Magrathea… which apparently is displayed in genuine 3-D if only you still have a pair of red-green specs lying about the house.
I watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy not entirely knowing what to expect, other than for obvious changes from what I'd known of it before… and I still came away with a huge grin on my face. I didn't laugh as much or as hard as I did during the books and radio series, but I found the film highly enjoyable. I enjoyed the extra insight into the Vogons and the Vogsphere, and the Humma Kavula side-story also helped flesh out Zaphod and introduced the Point of View gun which is pure genius. I also liked the enhanced relationship between Arthur and Trillian, but I feel it works better if this becomes a stand-alone film with no sequels – something I'm not sure will happen! Overall, for me the transition from series to film has worked well and I fully intend to enjoy each incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for both itself and its relationship with its intellectual siblings.
The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and it's simply beautiful. Dealing with a wide range of colours, plenty of CGI and a good number of indoor and outdoor shots, the hues remain rich throughout and skin tones are realistic. This is of course a dual-layer disc and the film's one and three-quarter hour running time's been encoded at a nice high bitrate that seems to keep any macroblocking well at bay. In fact, I didn't notice any visual glitches at all in the print used here, which leads to a near-perfect viewing experience that is just what you'd expect from such a recent film.
The soundtrack is available here in dual flavours of English Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Interestingly, there's also an English Audio Descriptive soundtrack provided for the visually-impaired, which I hope we start to see more of on DVD releases to widen their accessibility. On that subject, subtitles are available both in English and English for the Hard of Hearing. I listened to the English 5.1 soundtrack, which is a genuine treat. The sound is crisp and clear throughout, the original score provided by Bernie Leadon and Joby Talbot fits the feel of the film brilliantly, and neither sound effects nor music detracts at all from the all-important dialogue. The book sections and incidental narration are also clearly audible whenever they occur (even in scenes of high background action), which was something I was a little concerned about before watching the film. The audio composition also makes good use of the 5.1 speaker set-up, with lots of subtle background noises sneaking in from various directions, especially when on Vogsphere and Magrathea.
The disc menus were created to match the absolutely inspired realisation of 'the Book' (that is, the electronic gizmo that is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) seen in the film itself. Much like those brilliant animated sequences produced by the Shynola studio, the menus here are cheerful, brightly-coloured creations with a tongue-in-cheek sense of style. That said, they're obviously nothing quite so involved as some of the entries displayed in the film, so actual navigation from menu to menu isn't troublesome. There are the usual suspects ('Play', 'Scene Selection, 'Set Up', 'Bonus Features') as well as the intriguingly-labelled button 'Improbability Drive'… which in fact just selects a special feature at random and takes you there.
Although this early version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy doesn't necessarily pull out all the stops in the special features department, a respectable start has been made on what no doubt will turn into a more bonus-rich 'Special Edition' DVD release in the future.
Disc 1 is, as far as I can discern, identical to the region 1 release. The bonus material included kicks off with a 9-minute 'Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', which is kind of fluffy and promotional as is the way with most such 'featurettes'. It then looks set to improve with the inclusion of an additional Guide entry, a 1-minute animated short by the lads at Shynola which features the segment from the novel whereby Man disproves the existence of God by use of the Babel Fish. Following this we have 3 extremely short deleted scenes (running at between 30 seconds and 1 minute each) which really don't much, chased immediately by 2 more really deleted scenes (maybe 1-2 minutes each) which are basically just cast members goofing off in a rather uninspired manner. So far, so so.
Pulling the bonus section out of this downward slide is the entertaining 'Sing Along Thanks For All the Fish', which is just the full-video intro theme song with subtitles handily provided. There's also the dubious inclusion of 'Marvin's Hangman', which basically lets you play an abbreviated version of the classic game with four-letter words (no, not those kind!) with bits of Marvin breaking off every time you guess wrong. Maybe they thought it would appeal to kids or something?
Thankfully all this kind of 'iffy' content is redeemed by the presence of not one, but two feature-length audio commentaries, and both make for enjoyable listening (albeit for different reasons). The first is helmed by director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, but just as importantly features Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy. This is a personable, charming, and extremely active commentary full of classic anecdotes, fast wit, and good humour. The only place it might fall down for some viewers is in its general lack of technical details. How fortunate, then, that this is the strongest suit of the second commentary… which has executive producer Robbie Stamp and Sean Solle (a colleague of Douglas Adams) giving a wealth of background details on the production.
Interestingly, whilst that's where the special features end for buyers of the American version of this DVD, the region 2 release comes with a second disc. Before you get too excited, though, this disc only has one extra on it… but at least it's a substantial one: 'Don't Crash: The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Clocking in at well over an hour, this is a solid feature with everything from interviews to behind-the-scenes shots, studio recording sessions, special effects discussions, and even the official premiere. Between this and the two audio commentaries on the first disc, this DVD should fit the bill for the majority of viewers out there. For my part, I'm surprised at the nature of some of the omissions, the most glaring of which is probably the lack of any of the original theatrical trailers or TV spots for Hitchhiker's. (Anyone who caught the one styled after a Guide entry knows that this really must rate as one of the best film trailers in recent years.)
Hitchhiker's is one of those inexplicable cosmological phenomena… a British SF/comedy hybrid that has achieved a semi-permanent appeal over multiple decades in many incarnations, and has somehow managed to feel fresh every time it appears in a new medium. This latest film offering is really no exception. Purists may quibble that their favourite scenes and/or lines have gone missing, but at its heart this production has stayed marvellously true to the spirit of the original story… and thanks to excellent casting and impeccable visualisation it remains a treat to watch. As for the DVD, the picture and sound quality here more than hold up their end of the bargain… and while the special features section could be a bit meatier, several of the extras provided are of truly excellent quality. You shouldn't hesitate to purchase this if you're a fan.