The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Does the towelwaving live up to the expectations of fans?
Friday, April 29, 2005
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor
I need to take a moment and get this off my chest, even if it means a fair number of you will immediately move on to the next page on the Web: I'm not a big fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in novel form. I used to be a voracious consumer of anything science fiction and yet Douglas Adams' seminal work left me cold.
It isn't like I just didn't get Adams' humor since his Last Chance to See may be the funniest piece of nonfiction I've ever read. So, when I heard The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was finally coming as a major motoin picture, I wasn't feeling the excitement and trepidation that swept through the fan communities, where it was often wondered whether the movie would be faithful and have Sauron actually engage the Improbability Drive to get to Hoth before the Klingons. Sorrymay have mixed up my rabid fan communities.
© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
Regardless, five years ago there likely wouln't have been much expectation for an adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide since we all knew that adaptations of important science fiction and fantasy novels always stink. Lord of the Rings changed that, and now nobody is going to be happy with mediocrity in translating their favorite speculative fiction to the movie screen. It is a lot of pressure for a filmmaker, and one that Disney will subject itself to again later this year with The Chronicles of Narnia.
None of that for me, though. I was able to go in actually thinking that a mediocre science fiction comedy might not be a bad change of pace. And it had been so long since I read the books I could hardly remember enough to worry about whether Zaphod Beeblebrox's anatomy would be properly configured (for those worried, it is).
The key to presenting the absurd is always to never wink at the audience, don't be in on the joke. What is on the screen, no matter how silly must be reality and to this the screenplay and Garth Jennings' direction remains true. They're aided in this by Martin Freeman's performance as Arthur Dent, the cenral figure in this this story.
Dent is an ordinary fellow (I'm oh so tempted to say bloke) who wakes up trying to save his house from being destroyed to build a freeway bypass only to be saved at the last minute by his alien (so far unknown as such) friend when Earth is destroyed to build an interstellar freeway. From there it is on to narcissistic galactic presidents, bad alien poetry, a depressed robot, and even some time as a yarn doll. All of which is taken in with the difficult but correct balance between this can't be happening to me and this is happening to me. The key being that nothing says, this can't happen.
The supporting cast is adept at rolling with the punches as well. Zooey Deschanel as Trillian doesn't have a whole lot more to do than look pretty and make Dent weak in the knees, but she definitely has the ability to induce weak knees. Sam Rockwell can preen and strut with the best of them. Look at some of his scenes in Charlie's Angels or as Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to get a full sense of just how much this man can mug. In Beeblebrox he finally has a character where it may not be possible to ham it up too much, but he gives it a valiant effort, gnawing the corners off every scene he's in.
The casting generating the most concern is Mos Def as Dent's alien friend Ford Prefect. What could they be thinking, many asked, to cast a New York rapper in this most British of writing? Baseless worry, fortunately. Though he has a bit of a tendency towards mumbled lines, if you didn't know he was a well regarded rap artist, nothing in the performance would give him away (and if you didn't know, pretend I didn't just tell you).
© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.
Otherwise, the bit parts and voices are provided by a who's who of British icons (Alan Rickman, Warwick David, Helen Mirren, and so on.) but it is once again Bill Nighy who continues to walk away with every movie he appears in. Nighy's planetbuilding Startibartfast is a very small part, but several days after seeing the movie his expression lingers with me.
It is probably too iterative of me to say this, but in watching The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I am most reminded of 1999's Tim Allen vehicle Galaxy Quest. I say too iterative because when Galaxy Quest came out I remember thinking it owed a huge nod for its humor to Douglas Adams. Of course, I'm also reminded since Alan Rickman and Sam Rockwell appear in both movies.
They're very much different movies, but in style and temperament the similarity is strong and if you liked Galaxy Quest then this may be a good match for you. It stays well away from the darkness of The Fifth Element and the pure farce of Mars Attacks!, two other pillars of recent science fiction comedies.
Though some images may be disturbing to younger children (mainly near-human aliens), there is otherwise little bothersome about the movie. No nudity, no drugs (other than a fondness for beer), and, unless it is hidden in Britishisms, no foul language.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not going to go down in history as a classic. I also feel it covered the territory well enough that there is no need to plumb Adams' other books in the series, but it has a good sense of fun and wry observation that just about everybody should enjoy.
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted information junkie, Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.
Click here to contact Alex.