After a filling meal at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Judge Bill Gibron and holistic detective Dirk Gently caught the Starship Titanic for a journey into the long dark tea-time of the soul. The onboard entertainment? This well-crafted big-screen version of Douglas Adams legendary sci-fi spoof.
Our review of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (1982), published September 6th, 2004, is also available.
Right up until his untimely death at age 49, author Douglas Adams dreamed of having his ever-evolving concept known as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy made into a motion picture. It had already been a popular radio series, a beloved TV show, a collection of hugely popular novels, a stage play, and a state of the art (for 1984, anyway) computer game. In each and every incarnation, Adams sought to stretch and redefine the parameters of his proto sci-fi parable. For many, the books were the Bible, a clear illustration of what Adams sought to say about the state of the universe and man's place within it. But when the big-screen version of Guide finally hit theaters in 2005, fans were frothing over perceived changes, outright omissions, and the peculiar choices made in casting. What many didn't realize was that Adams had approved almost everything about the production, from the plot alterations to the actors involved. It was all part of the writer's attempt to keep his franchise fresh and contemporary. While so may bemoan its effectiveness as a film, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a sound adaptation of Adams's ideals. It might not be a masterpiece, but it's definitely not the defilement many claim it is.
Facts of the Case
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, The Office) wakes up one morning to learn that his house is going to be destroyed to make way for a new highway bypass. Even worse, he learns his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def, 16 Blocks), is from another planet. Even worse, he learns that Earth itself is going to be destroyed to make way for an interstellar bypass for space travel. As Arthur argues over his fate, Ford saves the day. He sticks out his thumb and hitches a ride onto one of the spaceships—a Vogon destroyer leveling Earth. As one of the writers for the electronic source book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford knows the value of a good thumb—and a good towel. It's not long before Arthur and Ford are captured by the Vogons and tortured. Then they are shot into the vacuum of space—only to be picked up by President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), his sometimes gal Friday Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), and the manically depressed robot Marvin (Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest). Seems Zaphod is on his way to discover the Ultimate Question about life, the universe, and everything. He already has the Ultimate Answer. It's 42. He wants Ford and Arthur to come along as they use the hijacked starship to travel the galaxy looking for the Ultimate computer that will calculate the query.
There is something a little "off" about Garth Jennings's adaptation of Douglas Adams's quintessential quark-a-thon, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's not off like the veal substitute served at Fawlty Towers or the state of Vogon efficiency (or poetry), but "off" in the sense that what should be a Python-esque romp through the sci-fi genre is instead just a genial, well-meaning piece of effervescent eye candy. It feels like the book it was based on and has a look that mimics many of Adams's most interesting visual notions, but somewhere between the filming and the final product, the movie went a tad wonky. With something as complex and filled with fan anticipation as this project, it would be hard to be everything to everyone. It definitely gets better on a second, and a third, viewing. But oddly, this version of the Hitchhiker's Guide feels the most removed from its source material and, in the end, we've come to this saga to be wowed by Adams's verbal and comedic anarchy.
Perhaps The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is like Ibsen's Peer Gynt—an entity for voices, not for illustration. In all its forms—BBC radio plays, novels and short stories, stage works, and television series (even a text-based computer game), Adams' work has always been one of unquestionable imagination. The only place where such visionary viability exists best is in the mind's eye. The reason many die-hard fans had trouble with this film when it first came out is that it consistently failed to fulfill the images they had used, like internal action figures, to play out the space operatics inside their own heads. Besides, Adams was a whiz at literate wordplay. He could turn a simple discussion on the meaning of life into a satire on religion, fame, and personal esteem with just a clever collection of phrases. In a medium that is almost exclusively visual, subtle verbal repartee and outrageous epic imagery do not necessarily find common ground. It takes a creative team with absolute fearlessness to push the boundaries of the cinematic arena to make such an inconceivable pairing viable.
That Garth Jennings gets a great deal of it right is a testament to his talent. Unlike other music video mavens turned filmmakers, Jennings has a real sense for the cinematic, of what looks good on the screen and what helps to realize his lofty ambitions. There are several times during The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the visit to the Vogon planet, the visualization of Deep Thought, and Slartibartfast's tour of the planet factory floor) where Jennings shows off a true sense of spectacle. Even in minor moments (Ford and Arthur sharing more than a few pints at a pub or the final confrontation with the mice), he shows poise, control, and a flair for the fantastic. However, before we drown him in accolades, there are parts of this movie that just don't jibe, that don't work within the boundaries set up in this version of Adams's world.
Oddly enough, the casting is almost uniformly good. There are only two people out of place and they probably aren't who you're thinking of. As Arthur, Martin Freeman, from the BBC version of The Office, is excellent. He brings the right amount of reserve and rashness to what is essentially the audience's entryway into this strange story. We need Arthur to be both naïve and knowing, and Freeman consistently manages that tightrope tone. While many proclaim he was miscast, Mos Def is actually fine as Ford Prefect. In all his incarnations, Ford is viewed as the cool as a cosmic cucumber bon vivant who exudes an unearthly unctuous magnetism. As Def plays him (without a hint of his usual urban rap demeanor), we get an effect similar to that of Hugo Weaving mucking up his Aussie accent to become The Matrix's Agent Smith. Def is slightly askew but still devilishly suave—everything Prefect is said to be.
No, the problem people are Sam Rockwell as Zaphod and the one true misguided decision in this company, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. Rockwell's problem is completely technical. He is a hoot as the rock and roll egomaniac that is Zaphod, but his second head and third arm issues are handled with awkwardness and inefficiency. In all other incarnations of the story, the preening President of the Galaxy was seen as having a literal split personality, a pair of visible heads that could interact with and contradict each other. Imaging Rockwell's vain-ass vulgarian arguing with himself over decisions and intentions would have been better than some neck-based nonsense. And then there is poor Ms. Deschanel. Now, for all this critic knows, she may be a wonderful person. She may save whales in her spare time and push for nuclear disarmament when she's not acting. But she is not Trillian, not by the longest shot from the Point of View gun. She is woefully out of place, delivering her lines like she's auditioning for a role in Mean Girls 2. We never believe her character—not that she's given much of a character to play. This is not the Trillian as imagined in the novels. Deschanel is just a pointless love interest, an object of desire for men too busy bouncing around inside incredibly clever sets to truly notice.
All role issues aside, this is an amazing-looking film. Jennings brings all his visual flair to filling out the various elements in Hitchhiker's universe. The Vogons are absolutely brilliant, dead-on interpretations of what Adams categorized as ineffectual intergalactic pencil-pushing bureaucrats. Since he relies heavily on physical effects (in this case, creatures created by the Henson Company), these big, blubbery blobs have the necessary gravitas to make them appear authentic and real. The same goes for Marvin who, while not the most sleek or proficiently designed robot, does come across with great comic aplomb. All the backgrounds are wildly imaginative, as are the planet designs and space settings, the use of darkness, and the occasional off-screen element (like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast) keep a genuine air of mystery about the film. Certainly the episodic feel of the middle act, where it appears as if random events are happening for no good reason, distracts from the narrative drive. Moreover, there should be more of the title entity in the film, period (the Guide is brilliantly realized). Yet The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins and ends well, easily breezing through its one hour, 40 minutes of running time.
The DVD release by Buena Vista of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is dynamite. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is amazing—bright and colorful, meticulous and sharp (without resorting to digital "enhancement"). There is a newness and a freshness to this transfer that brings the movie to life in a whole different way. We get a chance to see details we missed when the movie was in theaters. Overall, this is a fantastic presentation, one that truly does the visual power of this film proud. Aurally, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes in two completely immersive and sonically mesmerizing experiences. Either option, Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 or DTS 5.1, is fabulous. There is a real sense of space in the mix, a proficient use of all the channels, and lots of directional and effects cues bouncing between the speakers. Dialogue is always upfront and clear, and the musical scoring doesn't overwhelm or stifle the other sound elements. From an overall technical perspective, this is an amazing digital version of the film.
Buena Vista also does a good job of providing some interesting complementary and supplementary material for this version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Among the minor offerings is an eight-minute EPK presentation on how the film was made. Far from being in-depth, it is a fluffy affair with Jennings praising his cast, and his actors doing the same. There is a collection of deleted scenes (none necessary or truly missed) and a couple of "really" deleted scenes, which appear to be Jennings having fun with the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster action film. They are interesting, but again not important to the movie. A sing-along version of the opening dolphin production number, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish," is provided, as well as an extra installment from the Guide itself (something about proving God doesn't exist). Together with sneak preview trailers and an "improbability drive" button option (that takes you immediately to any extra on the disc at random), the basic bonus elements are "mostly harmless" fun.
The real substance comes in a pair of full-length audio commentaries that accompany the film. The first features Jennings and Freeman, along with producer Nick Goldsmith and fellow actor Bill Nighy. These are four British blokes who, when not making films, would actually make a pretty good comedy team. They are quick on the draw, witty, wonderfully insightful, and filled with anecdotes about individuals not part of the discussion. Mos Def gets lots of digs, as does John Malkovich. Perhaps the most intriguing information comes when Jennings discusses many of the off-the-cuff moments and temporary fixes he had to employ just to get the movie finished. Whether it was grabbing a local muscleman from a gym to play a part or cobbling together a prop out of various bits laying around, he does come across as a caring and concerned filmmaker.
The second alternate track features two former pals of Douglas Adams, Robbie Stamp (who executive produced the movie) and Sean Solle (who collaborated with Adams throughout his life). What's most remarkable about this discussion is that it flies completely in the face of those who'd criticize the script for not being true to Douglas's vision. Stamp and Solle make it very clear that many, if not all, of the changes you see in the cinematic version of Hitchhiker's Guide were Adams' idea. He's the one who played with the narrative structure. He's the one who amplified the relationship between Arthur and Trillian. He's the one who developed Zaphod's odd second-head placement. They are also the ones that make the point over and over again that Adams saw The Hitchhiker's Guide as an ever-evolving story (in deference to his love of Darwinian theory) and never meant there to be "definitive" versions. They make a point of showing how certain characters changed from radio to TV and how elements of the books changed over time. It's a fascinating bonus feature in that it really helps to quell a lot of our questions about the sanctity of the source. Adams never felt it was taboo to mess with his work, so Jennings and the others should feel free to mess with it as well.
On the grand scale of adaptations, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy falls far closer to Lord of the Rings than it does The Shining or I, Robot. It is a breezy, clever comedy with lots of humor and an intense amount of visual splendor. Had it not been based on sacred source material—books and radio plays, television shows, and computer games memorized and immortalized over and over again—this would be a smashing, witty entertainment. Instead, there are so many clouds that hang over this production that it's hard to see the truth from all the tantrums. Okay, so the movie isn't 100 percent faithful to the books. Okay, so Ford Prefect is not how you imagined him. Okay, so the plot seems more of a corporate convolution than the surreal stream-of-consciousness logic play created by Adams over the years. There is still a lot to like here, a lot of imagination and visual flair that is missing from most CGI-heavy hokum. Garth Jennings deserves a great deal of credit for stepping up and trying to deliver. Even with the odds (and some of the actual elements) against him, he still provides a smart, funny film. This may not be The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as you envisioned it, but then again, neither were all the variations offered by the author himself. There is still an amazing amount of Douglas Adams in this film and that's worth celebrating.
Garth Jennings and his cinematic interpretation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is hereby found not guilty and is free to go. Buena Vista is also given props for delivering a DVD experience that clearly explains the film's faithfulness to Douglas Adams' vision. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Full-length Audio Commentary featuring Director Garth Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith, and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy
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