Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
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A slimy Vogon tortures Mos Def and Martin Freeman by reading them his poetry in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ (Photo by Laurie Sparham)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel. Directed by Garth Jennings. Written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on Adams’ novel. Rated PG.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Mostly Harmless

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it feels familiar for Douglas Adams fans.

By KRISTIAN LIN

If The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy compiled an entry on itself, it would likely say that this incredibly useful tome about life, the universe, and everything began as a BBC radio series in 1978. Its success in the U.K. exploded into worldwide bestsellerdom when co-writer Douglas Adams turned it into a novel with a whimsical, schoolboyish, self-referential sense of humor that was unique to science fiction (though not to British culture — Monty Python, with whom Adams crossed paths, was doing a similar brand of comedy). The novel spawned a tv miniseries in 1981, four more books, and cultural references ranging from Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” to the web site at babelfish.altavista.com. Before his death in 2001, Adams finished a draft of a movie script, which forms the basis for the film version that’s out in theaters this week.
Here’s my entry on the latest edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide: The current film is mostly a straightforward retelling of Adams’ best jokes, which is terrific if you’ve never read the original. If you have, though, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Martin Freeman from British tv’s The Office stars as Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman who’s already having a bad day before discovering that aliens are about to destroy Earth. Seconds before the planet is blown up, he’s whisked away by his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), an extraterrestrial who’s been living undercover as an Earthling while conducting field research on our world. The two of them improbably find their way on board a stolen spaceship piloted by the dimwitted, flamboyant, two-headed, three-armed president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). Rounding out the crew are Zaphod’s girlfriend and the universe’s only other surviving Earthling, Tricia “Trillian” McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), and a chronically depressed robot named Marvin. The five of them journey through space, encountering all manner of misadventures and near-death experiences.
The movie boasts state-of-the-art visuals, which the story badly needs — track down the BBC miniseries and you’ll see some special effects that were painfully amateurish even by 1981 standards. Not so here: The placement of Zaphod’s second head is cleverly handled, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop renders the various races of aliens well. The shop does a particularly good job with Marvin (who’s played by 3-foot-6-inch actor Warwick Davis and voiced perfectly by Alan Rickman), who emerges as a palpable and very funny presence. The movie’s complement of visual weirdness goes best with the actors who are allowed to be weird themselves. Bill Nighy plays a planet designer who’s deliciously embarrassed to reveal that his name is Slartibartfast, while the peerless Rockwell gives the movie’s best comic performance, playing the oblivious Zaphod as a cross between a glam rock star, George W. Bush, and Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
With all this, the movie should go better than it does. Part of why it doesn’t is the acting of Freeman, who’s undistinguished as the straight man in the middle of the wackiness (the saucer-eyed Deschanel is significantly better in this area), and Mos Def, who doesn’t cut loose here the way he should. (Ford should give off a more subtle weirdness than the other alien characters.) The original material, though, may be the bigger problem. Adams’ books aren’t too strong on story. They’re basically humorous episodes strung together, and the narrator keeps interrupting the plot to give us funny excerpts from the guide that help us understand what’s happening. The movie follows suit, and even with Stephen Fry reading the narration, the interjections are much more intrusive here than they are on the page. An experienced director might have smoothed this over, but first-time helmer Garth Jennings, another filmmaker with a tv commercial/music video background, is more interested in the special effects than in finding the best way to translate Adams’ humor to the screen. For all the movie’s genuinely funny moments, there are long, flat stretches where Adams’ fans will be waiting for familiar jokes to play themselves out.
The sad part is that those great moments often come when the filmmakers pile their own funny bits on top of Adams’ originals — an opening montage of leaping dolphins set to a splashy new song called “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” an interlude when Zaphod’s spaceship and its occupants are briefly turned into yarn, and a hysterical scene with John Malkovich as a religious leader who believes the entire universe originated from a mystical being’s sneeze and is preparing his followers for the Coming of the Great White Handkerchief. This last item was Adams’ contribution (though the actor’s relish is what makes the bit work), and it’s tempting to believe that had he lived a few years longer, the film would have had more of such things. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is worth checking out as the last word from this science-fiction genius, and it’ll work really well for newcomers to Adams. Still, it could have been so much more.


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