by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable movie. It has already supplanted Revenge of the Sith as the science fiction movie to see this year, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.
First, it has a slightly
cheaper budget, and secondly it has the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large
friendly letters on its ad campaign.
25 years in the making (and
four years too late for its late and much lamented author), the movie version
of The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a wonderfully fun return to Douglas Adams’s
droll and goofy universe where the hero is not interested in bringing down evil
galactic empires or going boldly where ever increasing numbers have gone
before. Rather, he just wants a good cup of tea.
For those of you who have
spent the last quarter century living under a ravenous bugblatter beast:
harried everyman Arthur Dent (played by Martin Freeman) escapes from earth just
before its destruction when it turns out that his friend, the unusually named
Ford Prefect (Mos Def), is not an out of work actor from Guilford at all, but
is in fact an alien doing research for an encyclopaedia called The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They are eventually rescued by Zaphod
Beelbebrox (Sam Rockwell), the President of the Galaxy who has kidnapped
himself and stolen a prototype spaceship, and his companion Trillian (Zooey
Deschanel), a woman from earth that Arthur once met at a fancy dress party and
promptly blew it with. Together with Marvin, the ship’s paranoid android
(played by Warwick Davis, and wonderfully voiced by Alan Rickman), they blunder
into a series of adventures while they attempt to discover the answer to the
ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Or rather the ultimate
question, since the answer only makes sense if you know the question.
Sam Rockwell is terrific as
President Beeblebrox. Part Freddie Mercury and part George Bush, Rockwell
continues to add to his growing resumé of excellently portrayed offbeat
characters. (I must say that I didn’t much care for the effect used for
Zaphod’s second head; however this is a minor complaint and it’s certainly
better and less distracting than the second head Mark Wing-Davey had to
struggle with in the old BBC TV series of Hitchhiker’s. And while we’re
on the topic of the original BBC series, look for a brief cameo from Simon
Jones, the original Arthur Dent, and an appearance from the original Marvin the
paranoid android. Douglas Adams’s head pops up a couple of times, too.)
The rest of the cast is
uniformly excellent as well. Martin Freeman brings a confused yet compassionate
feel to the embittered Arthur Dent, a man who has lost literally everything,
yet still manages to find hope in his loss. Mos Def is sufficiently out of the
ordinary as the alien Ford Prefect, but unfortunately his character all but
disappears by the movie’s end. And kudos to the always-interesting Bill Nighy
who brightens things up as Slartibartfast, the planetary engineer who built all
those fiddly bits in Norway.
John Malkovitch plays a new
character, spiritual leader Humma Kavula, and is generally wasted in the role
and has little screen time. But Humma’s is the only plot thread that is
ultimately left dangling – for a sequel, perhaps? And the Malkovitch character
does lead into a new subplot that takes our heroes into some unexpected places,
including a funny new piece of classic Adams business on the Vogon home world
involving original thoughts and a shovel in the face.
If there’s any quibble, it’s
that there simply isn’t enough of the Guide itself. Stephen Fry is a perfect
choice for the voice of the Guide, and more Guide vignettes, with their
wonderful animation, would have been welcome. (Stay for the credits as there is
a bit more of the Guide there.)
The filmmakers are highly
respectful of Adam’s work. Let’s face it – this could have been turned into a
bowdlerized, Americanized, garglebalsted travesty that would have been the
celluloid equivalent of Vogon poetry. But it is not. While many have criticized
some of the changes and omissions from previous versions, it maintains the dry
Adams wit and droll British humour, while also sneaking in a few tributes to
other SF film icons. (The Guide is introduced in the movie in a visual nod to
the monolith in orbit around Jupiter in 2001 A Space Odyssey.)
Inevitably, one must ask how
does it compare with previous incarnations. Adams never intended any particular
version of Hitchhhiker’s to be definitive; each version, be it radio,
book, record (remember those, kiddies?), stage show, or television, would be
what it was. So perhaps there’s little point in comparing this to other
versions. Indeed, one of my favourite bits of business, the conversation
between Arthur, Ford and the construction foreman intent on knocking down
Arthur’s house, is sadly truncated, and my favourite bit of dialogue in the
whole darn five-part trilogy has been excised. And there are other missing bits
that surely should have been included, including the revelation that earth only
rated a one-word entry in the Guide: “Harmless.” Doubtless these will all be
included on the inevitable DVD director’s cut.
But the question of which version you liked best is akin to asking yourself which is your favourite James Bond. Your favourite Bond is the one that you discovered first. And if this film draws more people to read the works of Douglas Adams, that can’t be bad.
Review by John W Herbert.
First published in Neo-opsis Issue 7.
“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.”