The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

| May 12, 2005

The wait is over. After two decades of scrambling, the science fiction satire dealing life, the universe, and everything finally hits the big screen.
Living in a cottage in the countryside of England, blundering everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, from The Office) is having a bad day. His home is scheduled for demolition. His best friend, Ford Prefect, is an alien. And, worst of all, the earth is scheduled to be destroyed in nine minutes and, like with his cottage, there is nothing he can do about it.
Ford whisks Dent away, hitching a ride aboard a Vogon craft, the very creatures responsible for earth’s destruction (and creators of some of the worst poetry in the galaxy). Flushed into the deep recesses of space, Ford and Dent are saved at the last possible moment (the odds against something in the vicinity of 2 billion to 1) by the outlaw President of the galaxy, two-headed Zaphod Bebblebrox, the wacky leader of the universe and cousin to none other than Ford. On the lamb for stealing a prototype ship, Zaphod roams the universe, while fleeing the Vogons, looking for life’s big answers, or in this case, questions.
Joining Dent, Ford, and Zaphod, Tricia, an earth girl Dent had a crush on, and Marvin, a depressed robot grappling with self-esteem issues (voiced by Alan Rickman, who steals the show).
Dressed in a terrycloth bathrobe and requisite t-shirt, Dent begins an epic quest with Ford and Zaphod and others to find the ultimate question to accompany the already well-known ultimate answer. Armed with only the best-selling book in the galaxy (with the words Don’t Panic on the cover), Dent sets off to win Tricia’s heart and recover a perfect cup of tea. His main rival for Tricia’s heart: Zaphod.
Reality-warping hyper drives (turning Zaphod’s ship into an orange and a ball of yarn, among other things), a field where any idea manifests as a slap, and endless corridors of bureaucratic nonsense stretching so far that even Kafka would shudder are just a few of the over the top ideas that the movie throws in the viewer’s face. A shame they couldn’t muster more laughs in the process.
Of course the goofy travails of Dent and Ford and the rest pale in comparison to the behind the scenes battle in getting the movie made. Multiple directors, different writers taking on the adapting chores, and the death of Douglass Adams at the terribly unfunny age of 49 (shortly after finishing the second draft), made Hitchhiker’s Guide, like Silver Surfer, one of those ethereal projects with legions of fans that looked like it would never get made.
Unfortunately, it has. Taking a page from the Lord of the Rings success, Disney opted for an unknown director Garth Jennnings to turn the cult novel into blockbuster fantasia. Although not Disney’s first mistake, the choice of an obscure video and director in retrospect seems a bit odd. Peter Jackson, relatively unknown, was a seasoned veteran of four or five feature length films by the time he helped the Rings trilogy. He handled the material with straight-faced aplomb. Jennings, on the other hand, appears simply to be having fun with someone else’s checkbook. Some of the scenes capture the feel of the book, at once both cheap and expensive looking, but the pacing and storytelling are off. It’s the script, however, that most widely misses the mark.
Douglass Adams’s books (actually a bit overrated, I think) deal with the absurdity of the human condition as Adams saw it. Haunted by a universe absent of order, Adams wrote absurdist slapstick romps with indelible sadness radiating from their center. In the book, Earth is destroyed by bureaucratic entities clearing a way for an intergalactic shortcut. This is the end of man. The books ripple with surreal hijinks, playing slipshod with sci fi tropes of space travel and warfare. There is a streak of meanness in Adams that is missing in its adaptation. Perhaps like Vonnegut, only the most literal of adaptations can work in moving Adams’s words to the big screen. The result: an oddball book literally about nothing. But, unlike the film of the same name, it is unquestionably hilarious. Adams had at his core the questing for ultimate meaning. The humor is a mask and the ultimate realization of Adams’s main idea: the universe is random, cruel, and uncaring. And life can end in a snap.
The movie, on the other hand, settles for the old-fashioned love story. Through the course of the film, Dent pursues Tricia with half-minded zeal. Their relationship becomes the “message” of the film: life may be random, or may be purposed, but love is the only thing that matters. Yawn.
A vague boredom hangs over the whole process. Funnyman Sam Rockwell works hard to give the movie life, but there’s something flat and uninspired that the cast cannot overcome. Playing Zaphod (in a funny Dubya impression), he laughs and prances about in ridiculous costumes and at times steals chuckles when there aren’ t any. But his efforts once again go to waste. The world is waiting for Sam Rockwell to blaze like Robin Williams (check out the indie Safe Men if you want to see how funny he can be), but here his efforts are to no avail. He screams and gallivants like a mad hatter prince brimming with manic energy, but the material, once again, lets him down.
The best thing about the movie was the choice to use costumes and Jim Henson’s studio instead of computer-generated effects. The various creatures in the movie gleam with ruddy presence. It is the only thing Hitchhiker’s Guide truly gets right. The universe is a gaudy place, after all, and Lucas’s sterile effects, clearly devised on a computer somewhere, don’t offer the grotesque physicality of the Vogons.
Ultimately, though, Disney isn’t the company to make such a bleak, nihilistic series of novels into a movie. The teeth have been removed. So have many of the jokes. The novel’s cosmic zaniness and whirlwind plot don’t make for interesting viewing, not in comparison to any number of other sci fi comedies. Trading on the success of the books, the movie offers a watered down message of hopeful humanity tied together by the bonds of decency, and that wherever you are, love conquers all.
Trifling fluff, indeed. Adams once said that trying to make a film was “like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” The wit of the man who wrote that is lost. Adams, wherever he may be–happy as cosmic dust or floating confused in heaven–is probably laughing himself into tears at such a distortion of his original purpose. Then again, with the way he viewed the universe, he probably saw it coming.

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