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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Directed by Garth Jennings
Written by Douglas Adams (book), Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick (screenplay)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
 
Principal Cast
Martin Freeman -- Arthur Dent
Sam Rockwell -- Zaphod Beeblebrox
Mos Def -- Ford Prefect
Zooey Deschanel -- Tricia McMillan ("Trillian")
Bill Nighy -- Slartibartfast
Anna Chancellor -- Questular Rontok
John Malkovich -- Humma Kavula
Warwick Davis -- Marvin the Paranoid Android
Alan Rickman -- Marvin the Paranoid Android (voice)
Stephen Fry -- The Book (voice)
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alec Worley

Any movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a lot to live up to, namely the seminal radio series of 1978, a "five-part trilogy" of novels, and a fondly-remembered BBC TV series. Unfortunately, Hollywood's rambling tour of Douglas Adams's sci-fi masterwork suffers in comparison, although co-scripted by Adams himself (who was working on it when he died suddenly in 2001).

Prefaced by a cheerfully ominous musical number performed by a troupe of thankful dolphins, the movie begins familiarly enough. The Office's long-suffering Martin Freeman plays pyjama-wearing Earthman Arthur Dent, whose resentment at having his house bulldozed by the local counsel pales in comparison to the imminent demolition of Earth by the Vogons, a slobbering race of alien bureaucrats. (Kudos to Jim Henson's Creature Shop for these impressive animatronic beasties; watching old-school special effects hold their own in the digital age makes you realise how much you miss them.)

Luckily, Arthur is rescued by his excitable chum, Ford Prefect, actually an extraterrestrial studying earth life (Arthur once had to save him from trying to shake hands with oncoming traffic). Together they thumb a lift aboard a hovering Vogon freighter moments before the planet goes pop.

Once Ford and Arthur are uncovered as stowaways, tied up with big rubber bands and subjected to the agonies of Vogon poetry, the script (completed by Chicken Run writer Karey Kirkpatrick) struggles to incorporate Adams's new material, while converting the book's deliberately haphazard plot into something fulfilling the A-B-C demands of the Summer blockbuster. Fans will notice the Vogons are promoted to the role of chief villain, while Arthur's lost love, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), appears earlier than expected (for the sake of the requisite love story), along with fugitive galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). Zaphod promises to be loads of fun (the grinning love-child of Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen and Wild Bill Hickok), but ends up staggering through the rest of the movie like a loud drunk on his way home from a rave.

Nevertheless, fans will relish Zaphod's unexpected stop-off at Viltvodle VI, home of the snot-worshipping Jatravartids (who live in fear of The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief) and ruled by quietly insane prophet Humma Kavula (played by John Malkovich -- or at least half of him). In this episode (cribbed from Adams's final draft) Zaphod is charged with retrieving the fabled "point-of-view gun" (which makes its targets irresistibly sympathetic to whoever shot them). But his quest gets pretty much forgotten and feels like something left for a later film to clear up. This just adds to the confusion for newcomers.

Like Monty Python, the original Hitchhiker's wins laughs by the distinctly British route of taking the random cruelty of the cosmos for granted. (Simon Jones's original Arthur Dent is hilarious simply because his outrage at Earth's demolition never registers above that of a man faced with appalling service at a restaurant.) But the movie constantly tries to lighten up its own cynicism with laser-flashing spectacle and Freeman throwing Fawlty-esque tantrums when things get too downbeat. Unlike the book (or its spiritual descendent, Time Bandits), the movie refuses to abandon its characters to the casual cruelty that gives Adams his bite. Instead it hurries things along at a pace that makes it feel as though it has little patience for its own ideas. It only ever pauses for breath to take in the eponymous electronic Guidebook's wittily animated asides, reassuringly voiced by Stephen Fry.

Hollywood may have fudged the story of Arthur Dent, but don't panic, there is still a fair bit for Adams purists to enjoy. Alan Rickman sighs new life into the moanings of Marvin the redesigned, but still paranoid android. Zooey Deschanel's Trillain is nicely vivid and Bill Nighy is perfect as apologetic planetary architect Slartibartfast. Along with cameo spots (including Simon Jones, the original Marvin and a brief rendition of Bernie Leadon's haunting cosmic banjo), look out for some witty new touches (like a spectacular tour of Slartibartfast's celestial shop floor, revealing builders with pots of ochre busily painting Ayr's Rock).

But ultimately this is all small compensation from a movie that rather sweetens Adams's attempt to put the human race in its place (when the TV series played out with "What a Wonderful World", it didn't really mean it you know). In striving to honour the author's memory (it closes with a dedication: "For Douglas"), perhaps the filmmakers couldn't bring themselves to consign Adams to the existential void he wrote about so brilliantly.

Copyright © 2005 Alec Worley

Freelance writer Alec Worley lives in London, England, and writes regularly for cinema magazines in the UK. His first book, Empires of the Imagination, is published by McFarland.


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