Directed by Garth Jennings. Screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the book by Douglas Adams. Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Nick Goldsmith, Jay Roach. Music by Joby Talbot. Photographed by Igor Jadue-Lillo. Edited by Niven Howie. Production designed by Joel Collins. Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Anna Chancellor, John Malkovich, voices of: Bill Bailey, Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry, Thomas Lennon, Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice.
Chosen in honor of today being the 42nd review.
“Ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?”
This is a line of dialogue that appears in every single iteration of Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, marking the entrance of Zaphod Beeblebrox, who, done right, can be an extremely funny character who still has to compete against all the equally funny things going on. In the 2005 film version, however, this line marks something else, and that is the growing certainly within the audience (particularly fans of the material) that the line itself applies as an apt criticism of the film as a whole. This long-delayed adaptation of Adams’ signature work certainly looks pretty, and has a comic sensibility that sometimes, when it’s firing on all cylinders, gets really cracking. But it’s also compromised and highly frustrating, even more so for fans of the original material. If the twofold task of any adaptation is to (a) make a standalone quality piece of work and (b) provide a clue for why the source work is so loved, than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes up short in the first department, and fails the other entirely. It’s not a terrible movie, and parts of it really work well. But as an absurdist science-fiction comedy, it lacks punch, and as a paean to the legacy of the late Douglas Adams, it’s unworthy.
Adams, who wrote some of the most delightfully goofy material ever to grace the sci-fi genre in both fiction and on screen, remains a cherished author because of his sense of wordplay, keen satirical eye, and skill at utilizing the most prized comic tool: the application of perfect logic to the ridiculous. He explored the universe he created with these tools in five novels, a radio drama, a BBC TV series, several records, a computer game, etc. He was also a very gentle man that, in his prose, was downright mean-spirited and cruel when he needed to be, which is fine, because his work is primarily about tone. Plot, characterization, theme…these are all present in Adams, but merely as a clothesline to string together bits, sequences, and observations about alien species that are no more than thinly veiled metaphors about the stupidity of humankind. The film (which, it should be noted, has a screenplay that Adams worked on before his death in 2001) dials down the cynicism and only timidly engages in the Swiftian satire that is a Hitchhiker’s Guide hallmark. And even when it does, it bunts when it should swing for the fence.
Evidence of the film’s issues come into play early, even if you discount the unsuccessful opening musical sequence involving a pack of dolphins escaping the planet Earth (the concept, and accompanying song, are both not nearly as darkly funny as they should be). When we meet Arthur Dent, Hitchhiker’s Guide’s nominal hero, he’s lying in front of a bulldozer in protest of a crew of men who have come to demolish his house. In the radio drama and novel, what follows is an argument between Arthur and the foreman that becomes an extended riff on the incompetence of bureaucracy, and that dialogue is both thematically relevant and, in many ways, the very point of the scene. And the argument is not in the movie. Later, Arthur’s friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who is secretly a researcher for the super-definitive tome The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, grabs Arthur from the mud and wants to tell him something important. So he convinces the foreman to lie in the mud instead, using perfect logic to explain why that must be so. It’s funny. In the movie, he distracts the crew with cans of beer. Which is…understand this: not funny. And it also doesn’t make sense why this would convince Arthur to leave his perch, so that a few minutes later, when Arthur reacts to his house being demolished, he looks stupid. Not funny-stupid. Just stupid.
The movie has this weird air of a production where you can see specifically the bad choices that flatten workable material. For another example, the concept of the bureaucratic Vogons, aliens who demolish the Earth and inadvertently pick up Arthur and Ford as hitchhikers, is funny. But their execution in the film is not funny, because the film likes to elbow you in the ribs with how procedural and oafish and clumsy and “funny” they are. So they’re never threatening, and therefore their funniness is not funny, because nothing at all is being subverted; they don’t even seem to take themselves seriously, so why should we, and therefore why should any attempt to deflate their evil be humorous? They seem in on the joke from the start, and that doesn’t work.The Vogons, unwisely, are made into the head villains of the film, which removes much of the tension that the comedy and satire would play against.
Things perk up in the middle act of the film, to a point. That’s where Arthur and Ford find a new home on The Heart of Gold, a very unusual spaceship that travels via manipulating the laws of improbability. That’s where the two pair up with the president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell in a typically terrific performance) and Tricia “Trillian” McMillian (Zooey Deschanel), a girl who Arthur once met in a party and now does not know that they are the only two humans in existence. Also on board is Marvin, a manic-depressive robot voiced by a perfectly-cast Alan Rickman, who gets some of the best lines even though his character is pretty much a joke; in the books he felt like the voice of both reason and Adams’ deeply pessimistic worldview.
Speaking of worldviews, the MacGuffin here is the planet Magrathea, a world that once developed a huge supercomputer called Deep Thought (voice of Helen Mirren) to come up with the “answer to life, the universe, and everything.” Unfortunately, the computer’s answer, which comes after millennia of calculation, is meaningless because no one knows what the question means. Subplots are shoehorned into the narrative to supplement what is really quite a thin story, which involves sidetrips to both an alien prison planet and to the compound of Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), Zaphod’s former opponent in the election. And there’s a love story between Arthur and Tricia, because of course there is. But it does give Deschanel a chance to shine…in fact, in this flawed version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deschanel is actually the very best Tricia the franchise ever had, bar none, because she actually creates definition out of a character that is usually shapeless and ill-motivated. There’s also another subplot involving Anna Chancellor as Zaphod’s vice-president that is downright confusingly resolved.
As fine as they are, characterizations can only take you so far, and in many ways belie the purpose of HGTTG, which is basically to tell an apocalyptic adventure story about a bunch of disaffected morons. In the book, Zaphod cares not a whit about The Question, only about wealth, and Arthur’s reaction to every plot development is to wish for a cup of tea. In the movie, the characters are seriously interested in their quest, which is not an unworkable departure, but it’s put to no good use, since this approach is mainly used to both excise comic material and to shape the movie into a more square narrative. There’s even an arc for Arthur, for God’s sake, which is completely antithetical to Adams’ ultimate musings that life is meaningless, there is no real change, and nothing good ever happens. Nihilistic? Yes, but it was damned funny. The film refuses to share such interests, which is a choice that feels like failure.
The fact that the movie is different is not the problem, because of course it is necessarily different—that’s why it’s called an adaptation. And in all the previous iterations of the series, Adams intentionally fashioned it so that no two versions of the story were the same, taking pride in zigging where seasoned fans would expect him to zag. But the issue with the film is that it dilutes Hitchhiker’s Guide in a way that makes it less distinctive, not more. What is supposed to play like a marriage between Doctor Who and Monty Python instead feels more like a generic space opera with comedy elements. The whole film is far too cute and Disney (it was released by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures), right down to Joby Talbot’s cartoonish score. It tries too hard to be funny, while the original was funny by virtue of its coldness, and the way it halted the narrative for trivialities. The parts that work best are when the movie captures the novel’s feeling of characters with different motivations bouncing off of each other like pinballs, like when the crew try frantically to escape a space battle while listening to Marvin’s cynical moaning and the chirpy shipboard computer who says things like “I’m pleased as punch to report that a fleet of 100 warships is attacking us!” Funny, but brief.
Later, the action shifts to Magrathea, where Arthur meets the mysterious Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy), who helps manufacture planets and shows Arthur the factory floor, in an awe-inspiring special effects sequence that now feels right at home in a film so tonally different from its own inspiration. This leads to the frantic climax involving a batch of homicidal pan-dimensional mice, the return of the Vogons, and the implementation of the Point of View gun, a weapon developed by frustrated housewives that forces its targets to see things from the holder’s perspective. Now that is funny, although it may be because I think the concept, the rare new ingredient in the film’s recipe, is inherently funny. But I do think how the Point of View gun figures into both the film’s emotional and action climaxes is actually rather clever. It also leads into a deus ex machina ending that seems more built to please nervous Hollywood executives than fans of Douglas Adams, but whatever.
The film’s sense of humor is weird. For every joke that works, there are two that don’t, which is odd to see in a film based on a story where almost every joke worked. And it makes more odd decisions in eliminating dialogue passages from the books (Ford’s attempt to get a Vogon guard to rethink his life, and an argument between philosophers about whether or not they are indeed philosophers are particularly missed). It also does this thing I hate, where a flashback shows something socially awkward, and it’s funny, and then it cuts back to someone saying “Heh, that’s awkward.” Yes…yes, I know.
Most bafflingly, the film even deletes the iconic joke about what Earth’s entry is in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—it’s like watching a production of My Fair Lady that forgets to sing “The Rain in Spain.” It’s bizarre. Later in the film, entire sequences feel correctly conceived and yet botched on landing—when Arthur and company have to correctly fill out forms on the Vogon homeworld in order to keep Tricia from being executed, it sounds like foolproof comedy, but the whole scene completely founders. Later, Zaphod’s brain has to be powered by a lemon-juicer hat, and you’d think that would just work, but you’d be wrong. The special effects are good except when it comes to Zaphod’s second (hidden) head, which is shockingly weak, hardly better than the prosthetic head from the BBC TV series. And the costumes and puppets, fashioned by the Jim Henson creature shop, are functional but clunky, trying for a Farscape asthetic but thoroughly missing the mark.
What does work are several of the other gags. I like Ford’s response to Arthur saying “So this is it. We’re going to die,” which is made funnier by the way it plays in one long shot, as does Zaphod’s later reading of “who are we waiting for again?” I enjoy the way Nighy punctuates a dazzling effects show by pointing to a random worker and saying “That’s Frank.” I love the Vogons’ reaction to a locked wooden fence–it’s honestly the one Vogon gag in the film that works. Also, the filmmakers keep in, thank God, the scene involving a curious whale. And Slartibartfast’s inept attempt to threaten Arthur. And how can you not enjoy a moment where Arthur accidentally pushes a button, and then text comes up on a panel that says “Please don’t push this button again.” And I love the animated sequences that evoke pages from the Hitchhiker’s Guide–the wonderful book with “Don’t Panic” on the cover, and I love that they got Stephen Fry to narrate, because (a) he was a close friend to Adams and (b) it’s Stephen Fry.
And I like the way the actors commit to the film’s reimagining of the material—given these terms, this is probably the best acting we could get. The standout is Rockwell as President Zaphod, in a performance that mixes the lecherous swagger of Bill Clinton with the limited intelligence of George W. Bush (this was 2005—Bush bashing was in). I’ve already praised Deschanel, but I also have to say she’s especially good in the scene in which she uses the POV Gun on Zaphod, as he takes on her mannerisms and parrots her deepest thoughts back at her.
The film’s ending, which posits potential for a sequel, is underwhelming and a little poignant, because of course such a thing was never done. Perhaps that’s for the best, because The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unfortunately, a bit of a mess, a movie you can kind of like but you also have to keep making excuses for. Although it is Hollywood law that anything can be turned into a movie (like the upcoming Battleship), I think the long development time and meager result prove that not everything can. For example, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could not, and only transmuting the source material and removing its core could it be made safe for multiplex consumption, at the expense of everything that fans love about it. Too bad. Really too bad.
NOTES: Some of the removed material shows up as deleted scenes on the DVD, which overall fails to prove that the film is better with them removed.
The last image on screen before the credits is the face of Douglas Adams, may he rest in peace. Also, Simon Jones plays the Magrathea answering machine—he played Arthur on TV and on the radio. The TV series “Marvin” costume also shows up at one point (the TV series, btw, despite its rock-bottom production values, is recommended).
Cameos in the “alien newscast” scene include Trainspotting and Boardwalk Empire‘s Kelly MacDonald, and also Jason Schwartzman as Bebblebrox’s brain specialist (thank God they kept that line in, by the way).
You didn’t ask, but as someone who read the book when I was 12 and tried to cast the then non-existent movie in my head, I always pictured Michael Keaton as Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Didn’t happen, though. Well, Belgium.
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