The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Review
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy introduces us to Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a nice but rather dull Englishman who is having the worst morning of his life. Arthur's house is scheduled for demolition by the local council to make way for a new bypass and the bulldozers are already outside, revving their engines. As Arthur soon learns, this is the least of his worries. The planet Earth itself is also about to be destroyed, by the Vogon construction fleet for much the same reason. This information comes from Arthur's best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) who confesses that he's an alien. He's been working incognito on Earth, writing articles for the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, the bestselling interstellar encyclopedia.
As the Vogon destroyers circle the planet, Ford manages to beam himself and Arthur on board the mothership, Arthur still in his dressing gown and slippers. They escape seconds before the Earth is atomised but there's no time for mourning. If they're discovered by the Vogons, it will mean death or, even worse, a poetry recital. What Arthur and his alien pal need to do is to hitch a ride and they're given one on a stolen starship crewed by an unlikely threesome. Piloting it is Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the president of the galaxy who has two heads but barely a brain between them. Travelling with him are his chronically miserable robot Marvin and his girlfriend Trillian. In an amazing coincidence, Trillian turns out to be none other than Tricia Macmillan (Zooey Deschanel), a girl Arthur once met at a party, failed to impress and has been mooning over ever since.
British humourist Douglas Adams originally conceived The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy as a BBC radio serial in 1978 and he later adapted it into a hugely popular series of novels and a successful BBC TV series. Adams' comedy is unique. It's very whimsical and very British. Hitchhiker's is as much a satire of British society in the 1970s as it is of science fiction. Its most menacing alien race, the Vogons are simply a bunch of stroppy, civil service jobsworths who blow up the Earth because they have the forms, signed in triplicate, telling them to do so. Them's the rules mate.
Naturally, with such peculiar material, there were fears that this Hollywood adaptation, produced by Disney, would strip the story of its eccentricities and turn it into Men In Black III. Fortunately that hasn't happened. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is not a perfect film. There's a lot wrong with it, which I'll go into in due course, but it gets the most crucial thing right - it captures the flavour of Douglas Adams' writing perfectly. Five minutes into the film, my memories of reading the books and watching the series some twenty years ago came flooding back.
As good as the story and characters are, they're not what makes Hitchhiker's so wonderful. It's the digressions - the little facts supplied by the Guide, the gloomy observations of Marvin. And thank heavens, they're here. Actually, thank Douglas Adams himself. He wrote the script, or at least the first few drafts before he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001. After his death, the screenplay was polished and restructured by Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run, James And The Giant Peach) but all the important story and character changes were made by Adams himself. Some of these work and some don't but they're in the author's inimitable style and they gel with the rest of the material.
Some of the changes are ones you'd probably expect. Yes, the ending has been brightened up. No, it's not a cheesy Hollywood finale and it doesn't have a negative effect - the story doesn't feel compromised. There's also more action in the film than in previous versions but it's all undercut with Adams' dry humour. Arthur is never made heroic. When Trillian is sentenced to death, he saves her using the skills not of a Jedi but of a well-behaved, middle-class Englishman. The point-of-view gun is another lovely touch and it leads to a beautiful pay-off.
Some of the additions are less successful. John Malkovich's character is a joke that doesn't really come off. Religious cults are just too easy and too familiar a target. Despite the script restructuring, or perhaps because of it, the narrative goes flat in the second half, although it does pick up again in the last half-hour. The Arthur / Trillian relationship could also have been handled better. When Trillian declares that Arthur is the only man who "gets her", it comes out of the blue. There's nothing in their scenes together to explain her feelings for him.
The direction, by Garth Jennings, is okay but only occasionally inspired, as in the superb special effects sequences towards the end. We should be relieved that the former music video director is no McG but Hitchhiker's deserved someone with a visual wit to match Douglas Adams' words - Terry Gilliam perhaps.
If the film is undeniably hit and miss, the ratio of about one miss to every two hits isn't bad. Take the cast for example. The hits start with the two leads. Martin Freeman is perfect as Arthur Dent and Zooey Deschanel is also just right as his dream girl. As good as they are, they and everyone else are upstaged by the voice parts contributed by Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman. Fry provides the voice of the Hitchhiker's Guide itself, as you'll know if you saw the trailer (surely the best film trailer for years). His dry tones, combined with the Guide's animations, create some huge laughs. Even funnier is Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the depressed android. Rickman hasn't been this much fun in a movie since he called off Christmas in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Marvin is going to be everyone's favourite character - he's wonderfully designed too and played with an appropriate slouch by Warwick Davis.
The misses: Mos Def's Ford Prefect is too low key. He doesn't register as much of a character and after the opening scenes, he merely tags along with the others. If Mos Def does too little, Sam Rockwell does too much - way, way too much. As written, Zaphod Beeblebrox has been taken in a clever direction, mocking politicians who get where they are through looks and charm. There's at least one sly swipe at George W Bush in the script. The way Rockwell plays him however is so gratingly over the top and so annoying that you'll wish the Vogons were better marksmen.
Despite these reservations, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is an honourable adaptation and worth seeing whether or not you're acquainted with Arthur Dent and his friends. If you aren't, you may find yourself tempted to pick up the book afterwards. This is a rare comedy that sticks in your mind and amuses you on the way home and when you think about it days later. Considering the garbage dumped in British multiplexes at the moment - The Amityville Horror, The Wedding Date, XXX: The Next Level - even a flawed Hitchhiker's Gude To The Galaxy is a refreshing delight.