The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) / Comedy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG for mild language and some violence
Running time: 110 min.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy, John Malkovich, Warwick Davis, Ian McNeice, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Helen Mirren (voice), Thomas Lennon (voice)
Director: Garth Jennings
Screenplay: Douglas Adams, Karey Kirkpatrick (based on the book by Douglas Adams)
Review published April 30, 2005
As someone who has read the Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker" series several times, it proves to be a difficult task to divorce my feelings about the movie with the fact that I'm very familiar with the story and characters as they have come to be known in the book, television and original radio shows. While the following review will attempt to avoid comparisons with the incarnations of other mediums, I do feel the need to point out just how difficult a task it must have been to try to adapt such a well-known book which people read because they enjoy Adams' off-the-wall, verbose explanations of things so banal, we'd never think of them ourselves. In fact, at under two hours, I feel it's an impossible task for a film version, and nothing I saw from beginning to end changed my view on this.
A relatively unknown Martin Freeman (Shaun of the Dead, "The Office") stars as British everyman, Arthur Dent, who is awoken rudely by the sound of bulldozers who are threatening to demolish his hours to make way for a thoroughfare. What he doesn't realize is that the entire planet is destined for the same fate, to be destroyed to make way for interstellar flight paths, and with the help of friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def, The Italian Job), he "hitches" a ride on one of the destructive spaceships seconds before the demise of Earth. What follows after that is a series of adventures that sees Dent and Prefect follow the eccentric president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, Matchstick Men), to discover, among many other things, the secret to life, the universe and everything.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the movie, falls under the category of a film that I'm wildly split about, admiring much about it, while also disappointed with just as many things. For the purpose of clarity, I'll take these one at a time:
Hitchhiker's Guide does manage to utilize much of the original screenplay as written by author Douglas Adams before his death, which means it is more or less approved by him for consumption by his fans. He also wrote an additional character and scene not found in his book, with John Malkovich (A Talking Picture, Knockaround Guys) playing the religious lunatic, Humma Kavula. The special effects are stunning, with the budget befitting a sci-fi adventure of this popularity and magnitude -- no skimping anywhere. The casting, while perhaps not the most ideal for each role, does actually work, with Sam Rockwell stealing most of the scenes playing wildly over the top from beginning to end. Although the reins of this mega-budget extravaganza would go to first-time feature director Garth Jennings, whose only previous notable work was commercials and music videos, he actually gives the film a fine sense of visual flair and proper comedic timing. In short, all of the elements are here for a lavish, grand story for fans and those unfamiliar to admire.
It's all too much and not enough at the same time. Rushing from one locale to another at breakneck speed never lets the humor of each situation sink in before we're whisked off to a new, provocative locale. This also means that much of the humor that permeated the book, i.e. Adams' insights into the background of nearly everything, is mostly stripped away. This leaves little feeling for the characters, with Arthur Dent almost an afterthought at times, and Ford Prefect serves almost no purpose after the opening scenes. There's just not enough expository information to be truly cohesive, which may be especially annoying for those not familiar with this tale, leading to the feeling like there's something really funny the creators have under their sleeves, but we're never privy to just what the joke is.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a mostly competent, highly abbreviated version of the Douglas Adams book of the same name, and should whet the appetite for those who've never done so to read or listened to the original work, for no other reason than to be able to make some sense of it all. At the same time, by being so condensed, the movie often wavers between being over-plotted and underdeveloped from scene to scene, giving us a few humorous moments amid grandiose special effects that we never feel the full brunt of, since we care so little about anything that's going on. For those who enjoy the novels, you will probably be pleased with the fact that so much effort has been put forth to bring life to the stories you love so well. For those unfamiliar, my advice is to read the Douglas Adams books first for the full effect, where the witticisms and authentic British humor provide the necessary glue to hold all of his outlandish observations and creations together.
©2005 Vince Leo