The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Review
By Shawn McKenzie 04/29/2005
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those books that is widely considered a cult classic, with fans eating up eating everything about it. The book itself was part one of a five-part “trilogy” of books written by sci-fi comedy writer Douglas Adams. Before the book, the Guide started out as a 7-part radio series broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1978. In 1979, the first book arrived, followed by a second 5-part radio series in 1980 (the same year that the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, arrived.) In 1981, BBC Two aired a 6-part TV miniseries based on the first two books (it was rebroadcast for us Yanks on PBS in an edited 30-minute format for each episode, whereas the original BBC episodes were 35 minutes long.) In 1982, the third book, Life, the Universe, and Everything, arrived, followed by So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish in 1984 and Mostly Harmless in 1992. A third radio series was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2004 and was based on the third book. A fourth and fifth radio series are scheduled back-to-back this year that are based on the fourth and fifth books. So…the Guide has been adapted into books, radio shows, a television miniseries, a text-based computer game, a stage show, some graphic novels, some novelty recordings, and a line of towels (I’ll explain that later.) What Adams’ creation never spawned was a theatrical feature…until now. The movie is the vision that he wanted, but unfortunately for me, that vision is just a little too weird for my taste.
As the Hitchhiker’s Guide (voiced by Stephen Fry) tells us, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a regular normal man who is about to have a very bad day. Mr. Prosser (Steve Pemberton) is a motorways contractor who informs Arthur that his house is scheduled for demolition to make way for a highway bypass. Arthur lies down in front of a bulldozer to stop the demolition. His best friend of many years, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), then shows up and tells Arthur that he doesn’t have to worry about his house, because in 12 minutes, it won’t matter anyway. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz (voiced by Richard Griffiths), the captain of an alien race known as the Vogons, is the one in charge of blowing up Earth to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Obviously, with Earth about to be destroyed, Arthur’s house doesn’t really matter. He is understandably confused, so Ford explains that he really isn’t a human. Arthur’s friend, whom Arthur thought was from the town of Guildford in Surrey, is actually an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. He had only come to Earth to do some research for an article he was writing about the planet for the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Ford doesn’t have a lot of time to explain, so he takes Arthur with him while they hitch a ride on a Vogon ship. They are saved when Earth does indeed blow up, but they are captured by the Vogons, where Jeltz tortures them with the third worst poetry in the universe. They manage to escape by being jettisoned out into space, where the spaceship The Heart of Gold picks them up. Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the two-headed, three-armed President of the galaxy (and “semi-cousin” of Ford), pilots the ship. Zaphod only got the position of President so that he could steal the ship, defeating his former opponent Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), a religious cult leader. Zaphod is on his way to the planet Magrathea to find the question to match the answer given about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (the answer is “42.”) The answer was given by a supercomputer called Deep Thought (voice of Helen Mirren), who took 7 ½ million years to come up with that answer. Deep Thought’s reasoning is that they should have looked for the question. Anyway…Zaphod is traveling with a few other people aside from Arthur and Ford. His girlfriend Tricia McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), a.k.a. Trillian (she shortened it to make it quicker to say), had actually met Arthur earlier at a costume party back on Earth (she and Arthur are the only two humans left from the former Earth.) She was attracted to Arthur, but when he failed to impress her with his lack of wanting to travel a lot, she hooked up with Zaphod. Marvin the Paranoid Android (voiced by Alan Rickman; Warwick Davis is in the costume) is a severely depressed robot (think Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh movies), and Eddie the Computer (voiced by Thomas Lennon) is the onboard computer (natch.) Along the way to find “the question,” they run into more Vogons, Humma, and Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy), a designer of planets (he had designed the fjords found on the coast of Norway on planet Earth.) As for Arthur…all he wants is to go back home (or to a home somewhere like it), a change of clothes (he spends the entire movie in his pajamas and bathrobe), and a decent cup of tea (something that he has trouble getting.) Otherwise…as the Guide says…“Don’t Panic!”
Adams died in 2001 at the age of 49 from a heart attack. He was never able to see his vision make it to the big screen, but he was heavily involved in the process since its inception. Producers Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, and Michael C. Gross first optioned the movie in 1982. They were going to use either Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray to play Ford, but Aykroyd had the idea for the story of Ghostbusters, and the Guide project was scrapped. Adams spent almost 20 years getting the movie off the ground. Finally, in 2001 (just before Adams’s death), a deal was almost in place with Jay Roach directing and staring Hugh Laurie as Arthur, Jim Carrey as Zaphod, and the late Nigel Hawthorne as Slartibartfast. After Roach passed, he remained a producer of the project, and he brought it to the producing team of Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings, the latter of which ended up directing the movie.
I remember reading and enjoying the first book when I was a kid (I read part of the second book as well), but I honestly couldn’t remember much about it. In fact, I had to do extensive research in order to make it seem like I knew what I was talking about for this review. According to my research…and the opinions of a few hardcore Adams’ fans I met at the screening…the movie was faithful to the book overall. They all seem to know that even Adams had deviated from his original creation several times in the many adaptations of his story. The character of Humma is a new character that Adams had created specifically for the movie (Adams is credited as one of the screenwriters, along with Karey Kirkpatrick.) That’s why I didn’t hear much griping about the movie…so I’ll have to do it instead.
The movie was very funny in parts, but overall, it was way too weird for my taste. I don’t mind when a movie is quirky…I just have to be able to understand the basic plot to find it entertaining. I put “quirky” movies into two different groups: “Twin Peaks”-like movies and “Northern Exposure”-like movies (both named after those two early ‘90s TV shows.) “Twin Peaks” was a show that was weird for weird’s sake. “Northern Exposure” was weird, but I always knew what was happening in the plots (it also helped that “Exposure” was funnier than “Peaks.”) The Hitchhiker’s Guide was a “Twin Peaks”-like movie. I couldn’t follow the action or why the characters were doing what they were doing. By the time Arthur and his friends began getting slapped by an unseen creature in a desert at one point in the movie, I started getting bored. I still don’t understand why Ford felt that a clean towel was the most useful object in the galaxy (according to him, a towel made hitchhiking easier, because it meant that they were a good guest. You’ll have to figure out that one for yourselves.)
The acting varied in quality in the movie. Freeman was perfectly cast as Arthur, because Adams insisted that Arthur be an average-looking English man (all of the other characters could be portrayed by anyone they wanted.) Freeman played Tim in the original BBC version of “The Office,” a show that tried to portray an ensemble of average-looking people. I can’t remember how the character of Ford was in the original miniseries (another adaptation of the story that I saw as a kid but don’t remember much of either), but Def was entertaining, if not as good as his previous roles. Def has been really making a name for himself in Monster’s Ball, The Italian Job, and last year’s HBO movie “Something the Lord Made” (of which he was nominated for an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and an Image Award.) Rockwell was the comedic highlight as the egocentric Zaphod, and Rickman was actually hilarious as the voice of Marvin, who never once had a positive thing to say. I loved Fry’s narration throughout, and it’s the only “character” that I constantly laughed at. Then we come to Deschanel. I don’t know what has happened to the girl’s acting. She was the highlight in the excellent movie The Good Girl and the only highlight in the awful Abandon. Somewhere along the line, after she became a semi-household name in the blockbuster holiday hit Elf, she started to lose her edge. In this movie, she is surprisingly stiff. I hope that I will see the Deschanel that I know and love again someday.
I predict that fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will crawl over their grandmothers to see it. As for me, it didn’t wow me, because it was a little too odd for my taste. Don’t panic though…just because I wasn’t crazy about it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring a towel with you and enjoy.
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