Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is about to have the worst day of his life. He is rudely awakened by the rumble of bulldozers bearing down on his tiny home to make way for a throughway and his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), informs Arthur that he is an alien from another planet “near Betelgeuse.” Worse still, Ford also tells his hapless friend that the planet Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or “H2G2” to those in the know, has been around for many years and has gone through numerous incarnations since its start as a BBC radio program written by Douglas Adams and launched in 1977. Since then, it has been published as a five-book trilogy (pun intended), turned into a successful and wonderfully funny BBC TV series, spawned a couple of stage plays and a best selling, award winning computer game and generated a line of towels (those familiar with any of the above will get the joke). But, over these years, “H2G2” has failed to get the backing to be made into a feature length, sci-fi, comedy extravaganza.
Douglas Adams was on the verge of getting his creation made into a film until his untimely death in 2001 of a heart attack. Since then, music video and television commercial director Garth Jennings and scripter Karey Kirkpatrick have adapted the Adams screenplay and brought the project to the big screen.
Sad to say, as a huge fan of the syndicated Brit TV miniseries from the 80's and the Douglas Adams books, I had high expectations for "H2G2" and they were not nearly met. Things start off well enough as Arthur is hustled off of the Earth by his friend, Ford, just moments before the Vogon destructor fleet pulverizes the planet into space dust. Ford, it turns out, is a researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comprehensive publication with information on such varied and amazing things as the Babel Fish, a creature that allows the wearer to understand any language perfectly, how to make a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, a cocktail that should be approached with extreme caution, and the importance of always having a clean towel handy.
The Guide (which offers the sage advice on its cover, Don’t Panic”) – a series of animated tutorials of things in the universe narrated by Stephen Fry - is by far the best thing in “H2G2” and, unfortunately, the least utilized. As the film and Arthur Dent’s story progress, the Guide is used with less and less frequency, taking with it any of the wit and whimsy the film has to offer. The Guide provides the bulk of the humor in “H2G2.”
When the action turns to Arthur and the quest to find the ultimate question (the ultimate answer is “42”) things slow down considerably. It’s not that the actors are miscast or their parts badly performed. It’s just that the live action and its humor are flat and without comedic emotion. Martin Freeman, reprising the Arthur Dent character as a clueless, ordinary everyman who is called upon to take part in an intergalactic adventure, is dead on in the role. Mos Def tries hard as Ford Prefect but lacks the comic timing and tongue-in-cheek delivery that David Dixon gave to the TV series. Sam Rockwell radiates goofy charm as President Beeblebrox but his mega-smile isn’t enough. Zooey Deschanel, always a favorite of mine, is pretty and fresh-faced as Zaphod’s girlfriend and Arthur’s once-upon-a-time almost love, Trillian, but her character adds nothing to the equation. Alan Rickman, the voice of Marvin, a robot possessing Genuine People Personality,” is suitably morose and negative.
Technically, “H2G2” is leaps and bounds superior to the BBC series – as one would expect. Things like Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the two-headed fugitive President of the Universe, are handled infinitely better than the low-tech TV show. (The series had the actor playing Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey) sporting a decidedly fake-looking second head versus the slick CGI effects of the film that, as the press material says, make Zaphod look like a giant Pez dispenser.) The various creature effects, such as the hideous Vogons, are well-handled by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and rep a breathe of fresh air in a world now dominated by CGI.
My main complaint with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is that it takes the pithy and subtle British wit infused in the source material and dumbs it down for us poor, obtuse Americans who wouldn’t known a satiric barb if it poked us in the eye. As such, the film sells us, and itself, short. I give it a C.Laura:
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, "Shaun of the Dead," "Love Actually") hasn't even gotten out of his bathrobe one morning and he's already fighting a demolition team who want to level his house for a highway bypass. Then along comes his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def, HBO's "Something the Lord Made," "The Woodsman") to tell him that he's an alien being and they only have minutes to escape before something similar happens to the entire planet Earth. Ford thumbs them both a ride on a Vogon ship and indoctrinates the bewildered Arthur on "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
Four years after author/screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick "Chicken Run")/producer Douglas Adam's death and over twenty years since the BBC television miniseries, the cult favorite finally makes it to the big screen and sadly proves not to have been worth the wait. Debuting director Garth Jennings (one of "Shaun of the Dead's" zombies) starts things off well enough and there are pleasurable tidbits to be found throughout, but "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" turns into a snoozefest before its over.
A boffo musical opener reminds us of the origin of 'So long and thanks for all the fish' (written by Joby Talbot, Garth Jennings and Christopher Austin) as the earth's dolphins fail to communicate the impending end of the world before making their escape. Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences take note of a rarity - a really good Best Song nominee. Ford's race to the local pub to enjoy the best of earth by downing three pints in record time is right in keeping with Adam's pithy humor, as is the hilarious montage of cities around the world all screaming, concluded with a shot of sheep baaing while running from the hovering enemy. Arthur's introduction to the guide also economically explains that their current hosts won't do - Vogons being 'bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous.' And here's the rub - the hilarious guide - animated and narrated by Stephen Fry ("Gosford Park"), is abandoned after only a few outings, along with some of Adams's most hilarious universal insights.
Instead, the film version concentrates on the love triangle among Arthur, earth girl Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, "Elf") and the President of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, "Matchstick Men") and his quest to attain fame by discovering the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything while being pursued by Vogons for his own kidnapping. These three and Ford never gel into a cohesive ensemble, clacking against each other like billiard balls as they lope from one disjointed adventure to the next. It says something that the most likable cast member is depressed robot Marvin (Alan Rickman, "Love Actually" voice; Warwick Davis, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" inside suit), although in fairness, Freeman acquits his character well and Mos Def's Ford is largely abandoned by the script. A bit involving Beeblebrox's rival, Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), who has begun a booger based religion in a godless galaxy, has all the lift of a used Kleenex, although imagination is evident in the design of Humma's hidden form. Even better is the lower tech Henson Shop design of the Vogons based on the veddy British caricatures of 18th century cartoonist James Gillray (click HERE for a Gillray illustration). Less successful is the reimagining of Beeblebrox's second head, here hidden like an "Aliens" pez dispenser and requiring too much manipulation on actor Rockwell's part.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is much less successful than 1999's unanticipated gem "Galaxy Quest." The uninitiated are hereby urged to grab a towel, make themselves a good cup of tea and seek out the BBC miniseries instead.
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