Life, the universe and everythingAs the voice of The Book (Stephen Fry) boomed across the theater in the opening of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” gently informing the probably mostly human audience that they were only the third most intelligent species on the planet, and not, as is commonly assumed, the second, I was overcome with the kind of giddiness one can only feel when one has waited for a movie for over a decade. And as leagues of dolphins began singing, “So long, and thanks for all the fish,” in a gala musical number, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face.
But as the film got down to the story, which, in “Hitchhiker” tradition, has only vague similarities to previous versions, it became apparent that Disney had excised many of Adams’s bolder tangents in favor of a more straightforward “Guide.”
First, though, it should be said that this is a very funny movie, particularly for people new to the story. It has one of literary history’s more unorthodox beginnings: the planet Earth is entirely and instantaneously vaporized to make way for a hyperspace express route. There are only two survivors: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a bewlidered man in a dressing gown who manages to be pessimistically adaptable in that peculiarly British way, and Tricia McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), a physicist Arthur met at a party who has changed her name to Trillian.
Arthur escapes Earth with Ford Prefect (Mos Def), a researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Fry), a snarky talking encyclopedia and the narrator in the film. Trillian leaves with the egotistical Galactic President, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). The rest involves talking mice, fjord construction, alien poetry and the Ravenous Bugbladder Beast of Traal, and it would take far too long to outline here.
The best new material is found on the homeworld of the Vogons, a bureaucratic nightmare reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” The Vogons, who require the paperwork from hell to carry out the smallest actions, are perhaps the most ineffectual villains of all time. Also fun are buried fly swatters that slap anyone who stops to think and the “point-of-view” gun, which forces the target to take on the perspective of the shooter.
There is a lot of good material, but it seems either Adams himself or Karey Kirkpatrick, the screenwriter for “Chicken Run” who revised Adams’s original screenplay, couldn’t resist conventionalizing the script. In previous versions, Trillian wouldn’t go out with Arthur if (or even though) he was the last man on (or off) Earth, but in the film it seems they were made for each other. In fact, the film features a romantic, fairytale ending totally out of character for the iconoclastic Adams. The fast pacing also occasionally chokes Adams’s leisurely silliness, and some of the book’s best gags fall flat as a result.
The end sets up a sequel, but it’s hard to see how a film that took decades to get made could gather the momentum. And as the final starscape fades and the credits roll, I realize that “Hitchhiker’s Guide” is at its best when unconstrained by the crushing pressure of millions of Hollywood dollars. The film is a good introduction to one of the most popular stories of the 20th century, but it is unfortunately only a “lite” version.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Comedy, Science Fiction / English
by Ben Applegate