Who are we? Why are we here? What is the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything? And would a sperm whale suddenly called into existence in midair, miles above an alien planet, want to make friends with the quickly approaching ground?
Like anyone who has [laughed out loud while reading] the book, I already knew the answers to these questions, so I was surprised to find “The Hitchhiker’ Guide to the Galaxy” not quite as consistently funny as I had hoped, but sporting an amazing visual sense and a shiny new heart of gold.
Douglas Adams is often credited with inventing the sci-fi/comedy genre with his best-selling 1979 book of the same name, which was based on his radio series. Four more books, a British TV mini-series, and a direct link to pop culture consciousness followed, but Adams yearned to collaborate on a film adaptation. After completing the second draft of the long-awaited screenplay in 1998, the author died suddenly of a heart attack. The film’s producers forged ahead, hiring director Garth Jennings (best known for his innovative music videos in the U.K.) and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) to bring the story of reluctant space traveler Arthur Dent to the screen.
Dent, played by Martin Freeman, is having a bad day. His house is about to be bulldozed, his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is revealed to be a space alien, and the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Luckily, Ford hitches them a ride, and Arthur begins his unlikely journey of self-assertiveness and discovery. Along the way, the duo meet up with Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a girl whom Arthur briefly and unsuccessfully romanced at a party, and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the two-headed, three-armed President of the Galaxy who stole her from him.
When a book is as popular as this was, some of its vernacular and lots of its secrets will become public knowledge. Bringing a novel with as many abstract, yet familiar ideas as “Hitchhiker’s” to the visual medium of the screen is no small task, and Jennings is more than up to the challenge. By using a creative mix of live-action puppetry from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and dizzying CGI special effects, Jennings has put a post-modern stamp an already futuristic film. The bloated grotesqueness of the slow-witted Vogon race (played by animatronic puppets) perfectly complements their annoying penchant for bureaucracy and paperwork, while Arthur’s ride through the planet-construction business of Magrathea is a wild, computer-generated ride with gargantuan scope.
Jennings also adds in some very funny and inventive visual jokes that were not in the original book, like when Zaphod’s Improbability Drive is used and the spaceship’s inhabitants all temporarily change physical forms. Each time, they mutate into something ridiculous like a sofa or a spool of yarn, yet they also eerily resemble their original form.
Equally remarkable and hilarious is the authoritative narration and contents of the Guide. Emblazoned with a famous “Don’t Panic!” on the front cover, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a tour guide for the interstellar traveler, with endlessly dry wit (provided by Stephen Fry) and state-of-the-art computer animation (by British animation company Shynola). These segments are flawlessly timed comic standouts, and the regular cast struggles a bit to keep up with the Guide’s pace.
What does not work as well, ironically, are the standard aspects of any film comedy. The actors inhabit their roles admirably, but never seem to gel with one another. This could be due to the barrage of silliness around them, but Freeman and Mos Def never quite find a rhythm together and, once Rockwell enters, all bets are off. He plays Zaphod with the appropriate amount of overzealousness, forcing Arthur — the main character — to fade too far into the background.
Whether it was Kirkpatrick’s intention or Adams’ (as the press kit claims), the screenplay emphasizes a love triangle between Trillian, Zaphod, and Arthur that was only hinted at in the book. Although not an entirely convincing element of the story, it is needed for Arthur to have a full character arc and become more of a participant and less of a spectator. Adams also invented a fantastically droll new character, religious cult leader Humma Kuvula (a creepy John Malkovich), specifically to give the movie a much-needed second act that the book was lacking.
Miraculously, when the movie was said and done though, it left me with a strange, life-affirming feeling. It is almost as if Adams is trying to tell us that through all the incompetence and insanity of human existence, in the end everything will be okay. If a sperm whale suddenly finds that he is plummeting to the ground and doesn’t have time to make friends with it, he can at least enjoy the view during his short life.