The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
Addition: “Making the movie was worse.”
To begin, an admission: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” while extraordinarily visual in its prose, is an awfully difficult book to cinematize. The BBC, in its low-budget television series produced decades ago, was not up to task of mass appeal. But the current version, starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Alan Rickman, and Zooey Deschanel, has even less to offer. The celebrated novel that tells the story of a most extraordinary adventure across the galaxy has been turned into a very ordinary film.
Note to Touchstone Pictures: never take a project that you have developed for decades and based on a beloved, iconic novel and hand it over to a first-time director. Oy.
Plot synopsis: ordinary Earthman Arthur Dent (Freeman) is having an unusually bad day. His home is about to be bulldozed and his best friend Ford Prefect (Def), who he discovers is from outer space, informs him that the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass. With the help of Prefect and a small book entitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the two men are able to narrowly miss the destruction and hitch a ride on a spacecraft. They soon encounter President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell) – a man with two heads – along with charming astrophysicist Trillian (Deschanel) and depressed robot Marvin (voiced by Rickman) and together the small group sets out to solve the mysteries of life, the universe and everything.
Translation: wacky British humor departs from reality in a philosophical bender of science fiction.
The “wacky British humor” is what this movie actually got right, thanks to the superior work of the cast and two delightful cameos by John Malkovich and Bill Nighy. The dialogue – some of it undoubtedly as comfortable as a Babel fish living in your brain – crackles with style, the jokes are well-timed, and in general, the actors make it through Adams’ zany world largely unscathed. Credit must also be given to the animators who crafted the actual “Hitchhiker’s” book – those segments are damn funny.
I wish I could say the same for director Garth Jennings and the production team. The group largely spurned CGI for puppetry and organic effects – a hopelessly bad decision when you’re already working with dated source material – and then they hired Joby Talbot to write the music. It’s Talbot’s first major screen debut as well; he’s worked most of his career in the realm of television, and he should be sent back to stay there. Jennings shows promise, but he badly botches the pacing of the film, and that’s the kiss of death for British comedy, which needs to zip from one gag to the next without time to think.
The combination of these shortcomings results in a picture that occasionally makes you laugh and gets the major plot points correct (with the obvious exception of the central love interest, which was hardly central OR traditional love in Adams’ book), but looks and sounds unpolished, never coalescing into a picture of which I believe Adams would ever have been proud. After the laughs are done, the movie is largely forgettable; that’s a terrible testimony to a movie based on a most UN-forgettable novel. In the end, the film most resembles its own segment wherein a sperm whale is spontaneously born in a planetary atmosphere, then ponders the meaning of life for the few short seconds it has to live before it is instantly killed on impact with the ground: a hulking, lubberly creation that exhibits high hopes before landing with a dull thud… and is never heard from again.