At a Sea World-style theme park, dolphins happily leap and dance with Busby Berkeley glee before ascending into the heavens. A big band crooner sings, “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish” as a pleasantly droll narrator (Stephen Fry) explains that the dolphin’s merry clicks and whistles are actually a warning to us humans that the end of the world is nigh. Unfortunately, as the third smartest species on the planet (dolphins are second; mice are first), we’re just too stupid to understand their dire predictions.
So begins the film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ radio play which was refashioned into the like-titled 1979 novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seeing as it was a literary phenomenon that spawned four book sequels and a successful (albeit low budget) ’80s British television miniseries, one is inclined to ask: What the hell took so long for the silver screen version? Adams long made it known that he wanted to see his book translated to film and even completed a screenplay before his untimely death in 2001. It’s ironic that an author known for his love of irony and irreverence didn’t live long enough to see his dream come to fruition.
For those few who remain uninitiated in the ways of Babel fish and the Improbability Drive, Hitchhiker’s follows the adventures of Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a rather ordinary bloke who, while fighting government bureaucrats intent on bulldozing his home to make way for a freeway, discovers that aliens intend to destroy the Earth to make way for an intergalactic freeway. Rescued in the nick of time by his drinking buddy, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur is whisked aboard a Vogon spacecraft in his robe and jammies, his only possession a ratty bath towel.
The Vogons are typical of Adams’ comic sensibilities: repulsive bureaucrats who spout pain-inducing poetry while joylessly making life miserable for everyone around them. His genial and occasionally wicked sense of humor boasts both wit and insight, skewering human behavior while gently exploring spiritual ideas about man’s place in the universe. Quite remarkably, the film manages to keep many of his clever little jokes and observations intact. No mean feat considering the book’s chaotic and often nonsensical nature.
Hitchhiker’s is peppered with so many offbeat and outrageous characters it can be difficult, at times, to keep up. Sam Rockwell struts and mugs as the accidental president, Zaphod Beeblebox. An equal opportunity idiot and narcissist, he drags Ford and Arthur on a quest to find the Ultimate Question (the universe’s biggest computer has already determined that the Ultimate Answer is 42). Along with astrophysicist love interest Trillian (the adorable Zooey Deschanel) and a manic-depressive robot named Marvin (voiceovers by Alan Rickman), our heroes zip from one corner of the universe to another, encountering increasingly outlandish situations.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the look and feel of the film and Jim Henson Studios does a terrific job of filling the screen with enough eye-candy to delight audiences without overwhelming the action. The combination of high-tech CGI and low-tech gadgetry gives Hitchhiker’s a whimsically slapdash quality. Nothing illustrates this better than a brilliantly funny scene where the cast is turned into stop-action yarn creatures that barf multicolored string.
What’s missing, however, is the manic and anarchic spirit of the book. Much of the movie’s pace is off, and instead of embracing Adams’ sense of the ridiculous, director Garth Jennings tries to rein it in. As a result, Hitchhiker’s feels pokey and a bit undercooked. The film begs for someone like Terry Gilliam to bring to it a greater sense of comic vibrancy and gleeful absurdity.
Similarly, many of the performances seem aimless and detached. The plot’s elaborate and surreal contortions tend to overwhelm the characters, leaving them guest stars in their own movie. Freeman and Deschanel are likable enough but generate little chemistry. Rockwell chews the scenery, channeling Dubya’s idiot bravado to good comic effect, but never connects with the rest of the cast. Mos Def, a surprisingly inventive actor, is nervously charming but too often gets lost in the shuffle. Only Rickman hits a bull’s-eye as the ever-jaded Marvin, delivering his perfectly timed complaints and asides with cynical aplomb.
Hitchhiker fans will, most likely, be pleased by the film’s earnest attempt to stay true to Adams’ vision. In particular, wonderfully droll asides featuring the “guide” are taken directly from the novel and earn some of the movie’s biggest laughs. For the rest of the audience, however, the film provides two hours of preposterous, if somewhat uneven, fun.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].