Movie Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Taming author Douglas Adams' silly sci-fi classic "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" into movie form is like training two wild schnauzers in petticoats to water-ski.
Even so, there's a lot to love about Garth Jennings' high-spirited, unhinged adaptation of Adams' collective work, most notably the casting of Martin Freeman (of the BBC version of "The Office") as the novel's unwilling hero, Arthur Dent.
Freeman embodies Englishman Dent's barely stifled annoyance at being the last human male in the universe, thanks to Earth's untimely demolition for an intergalactic freeway. Billions die, but he's saved by friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who is actually an alien visiting Earth to research a new entry for the universal best-selling book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Just when Arthur thinks his Thursday morning can't get any worse, he and Ford face torture at the hands of bloated galactic bureaucrats, the Vogons, then are promptly rescued by the insane, two-headed president of the universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), an Earth girl who previously rejected Arthur at a cocktail party.
And all Arthur wants is a cup of tea.
If Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy proved that intricate, mythology-heavy fantasy can be successfully translated on screen, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" ignores such attempts at fidelity. Though Adams (who died in 2001 while working on the screenplay) shares a writing credit with Karey Kirkpatrick, this version of "Hitchhiker" is less a twin to his five cult novels (or the original BBC radio series) than a second cousin. A very entertaining, slightly batty second cousin.
The central challenge of director Garth Jennings' adaptation lies in imposing movie structure on Adams' loony, star-bound wild goose chase, while still attempting to reflect the full-tilt pace of Adams' ebullient, tangential writing style.
Straight away, Jennings proves he's on the right track with a note-perfect prologue about dolphins - the second most intelligent species on Earth, just above humans (see the film to learn who's smartest) - warning Earthlings about the planet's impending doom. All their efforts, however, are mistaken for entertaining water acrobatics, so they bid their home planet adieu with a snappy, brassy song, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish."
Jennings and crew also hit the Vogons dead-on with the help of Jim Henson's Creature Shop - proving that large, physical puppets are still better than computer-generated beasties any day. So well-realized are these foul, poetry-spewing bureaucrats of the universe that Jennings seems to be directly channeling Terry Gilliam's sense of comic scale and visual irony.
While Jennings has technical skills to spare, he experiences a bit of turbulence when attempting to translate a verbal spectacle into a visual one. An example, from the introduction to the first novel: "And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Richmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This is not her story."
While the rounded, over-the-top visuals of Jennings' lovingly designed "Hitchhiker's Guide" are right in line with Adams' oeuvre, the love story that imposes structure on the movie seems out of joint with the cynical, deeply Monty Python-esque spirit of Adams' books. It's too sentimental, too on-the-nose for what essentially should be a Marx Brothers movie in space. Only Rockwell comes close to embodying the spirit, but he's intentionally annoying and hard to warm up to.
That said, new, shoehorned-in scenes with John Malkovich as Beeblebrox's arch-enemy are priceless, even if they don't make much sense in story terms. But that's the rub - Adams' cult books were less about story than deliriously silly, laugh-out-loud jokes on the page. Even if this new version of "Hitchhiker" doesn't quite capture it all, you'll still want to stick your thumb out and catch a ride.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
Directed by Garth Jennings; written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick; photographed by Igor Jadue-Lillo; production design by Joel Collins; music by Joby Talbot; edited by Niven Howie; produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Nick Goldsmith and Jay Roach. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday, April 29. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG (thematic elements, action and mild language).
Arthur Dent - Martin Freeman
Zaphod Beeblebrox - Sam Rockwell
Ford Prefect - Mos Def
Trillian - Zooey Deschanel
Slartibartfast - Bill Nighy
Humma Kavula - John Malkovich
Narrator - Stephen Fry
Voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android - Alan Rickman