You will find few visions this year as amiably daft as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that wants only to hop through time and space while stopping only occasionally for a laugh. The fan base for the source material — Douglas Adams’ saga was a BBC radio show, a series of books, and a BBC television series before this film — is at least as rabid as that of The Lord of the Rings, and even before the movie’s release the Internet seethed with complaints and praise in equal hyperbolic measure. As a casual fan of the Hitchhiker’s universe (I read the books in high school, and enjoyed the radio show when I caught up with it recently), I found the film far too busy and insecure, as if the filmmakers could feel the fanboys breathing down their necks. The movie catches the mad tumble of incident in the book, and some of the wordplay, but not nearly enough of it.
Douglas Adams excused himself from this plane of existence a few years ago, and if he were still alive he might’ve told the director, first-timer Garth Jennings, and credited co-scripter Karey Kirkpatrick to ease up a bit and let the movie breathe. Adams himself changed the story a bit for each new incarnation, and a few of the additions in the new movie are reportedly his. But the fun of this material isn’t the destination, it’s the trip. Adams filtered philosophy through a surreal P.G. Wodehouse style, letting his characters ramble on (the radio show worked best for this). The movie, powered by expensive visual effects, has less time for wit and becomes a borderline exhausting, plot-centered experience. And the plot was never the appeal of Hitchhiker’s Guide.
The premise remains the same: everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is whisked away from Earth by his alien friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) instants before it’s annihilated to make way for a hyperspace pass (satirically mirroring Arthur’s earlier crisis when contractors want to knock down his house to make way for a bypass). They meet up with various quirky characters, including the arrogant double-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), his sort-of girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and the perpetually depressed Marvin the Paranoid Android (Alan Rickman does a pitch-perfect job of Marvin’s voice). They’re all pitted against the surly Vogons, who destroyed Earth in the first place.
Hitchhiker’s teems with divertissements, some of which are pleasurable; it’s hard to dislike a movie in which one of the heroes gets brain power from lemon juice. And Stephen Fry is on hand as the voice of the Guide, a book that contains everything you need to know about the galaxy. Dolphins, an insanely chipper computer, sighing doors, a massive supercomputer named Deep Thought (voice by Helen Mirren) whose answer to the question of the meaning of life is, famously, 42 — all this and more, rattling around inside a sci-fi farce that, as others have pointed out, feels more like reheated Galaxy Quest than like Douglas Adams. Some will loathe it, some will go back for more; I felt rather indifferent, though the Jim Henson Workshop’s rendition of the Vogons is dazzling in its physical detail.
Otherwise, the movie’s vision of otherworldly realities lacks wonder and awe; it’s all backdrop for wacky hijinks, and the soul of the film is not poor beleaguered Arthur Dent or even the morose Marvin, but the aggressively nitwitted Zaphod Beeblebrox. Playing against mostly deadpan co-stars (particularly Zooey Deschanel, whose apparent refusal to commit to the material is irritating), Sam Rockwell goes way over the top, and though an over-the-top Rockwell is usually fine news, here it isn’t. Rockwell’s crude performance becomes a comment on how Americanized and Disney-ized the movie feels. I got the sense that, if not for the success of the British-inflected Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, Hitchhiker’s Guide might have been cravenly made with an all-American cast, and wouldn’t have been all that much different from what we’re now getting. As it is, three of the five main characters (if you count Marvin) have nothing resembling a British accent. That’s Hitchhiker’s Guide ’05 in a nutshell, I think: it’s still sort of British, but it’s lost its accent.