Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Review by Sombrero Grande

Allow me to begin this review by sharing with you where I'm coming from in reference to the history of "The Guide." Although there has been a radio version, TV version, stage play version, computer game, etc., I was only familiar with the novelization of the Hitchhiker's series before seeing the movie. For the most part I found the movie to follow the book pretty closely with the few changes thrown in merely allowing for the change in medium from book to film. Some of these changes were for the better, I felt, and some for the worse. Overall, though, while The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has some flaws as a feature film, it's nonetheless a very fun time at the movies.

First off, one big thing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has going for it is absolutely perfect casting. Martin Freeman isn't a big name yet, but just you wait. Freeman (Tim from the British version of The Office and Brad Pitt's body double in Love Actually) plays a perfect "everyman" and brings to Arthur Dent a tad of loser aloofness, which suits the role perfectly. Rapper Mos Def is surprisingly good as Ford Prefect, bringing the character to life in a manner which I wasn't expecting but was a great fit. Sam Rockwell ("Guy" from Galaxy Quest) plays a phenomenally entertaining President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox. (Is it just me, or is Rockwell imitating George W. Bush's drawl for the part?) Zooey Deschanel is a charming Trillian who does well with her expanded role in the film version. Bill Nighy plays a great and memorable Slartibartfast. Even the voice casting is spot-on; Alan Rickman brings just the right amount of everything to Marvin the Paranoid Android and Stephen Fry couldn't have been a more perfect voice of "the Guide" and narrator. From now on when I reread the books, these are the faces and voices I'll be picturing for these characters.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for those who are newcomers to the story, centers around Arthur Dent, the last human to make it off of the Earth before it is destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace express route. Thanks to his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out not to be human at all but an alien sent to Earth to research the planet for an entry in "the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," Arthur escapes the demolition of his planet and gets caught up a mission through space which he has frustratingly little control over.

There is heavy narration throughout the first half of the film, provided by The Guide, which is more a talking computer than a traditional Earth book. While the narration is essential to fill in the audience on subjects like Vogons and Babel Fish, it does feel a little too heavy at first. While previous renditions of the story relied heavily on narration by the nature of their mediums, film is really a visual medium, so when the Vogon Jeltz is reading his poem and the narration interrupts to talk about the nature of Vogon poetry, it felt a bit unnecessary. We don’t really need to have described to us what we're seeing. For instance, the importance of towels is never directly discussed via narration, but the audience can witness by the many ways they are used in the film the reason why Ford insists Arthur bring his towel along with him.

In order to make the story work as a film, the relationship between Arthur and Trillian was expanded into a love story. Like in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen received the same kind of treatment and lengthy periods of screen time, it's completely superfluous. The movie's pacing slows or stops whenever the "love story" comes into play to the degree that it really feels shoehorned in. Plus, it's really not all that good or convincing. Freeman and Deschanel do their best to try and make it work, but it's obvious that this part of the film is not where the filmmakers chose to place much of their creative focus. For a film that does all sorts of novel and unique things with regard to "life, the universe and everything," the love story is uninterestingly by-the-numbers.

Another beef I have with the film version is the distracting musical score. I guess composer Joby Talbot didn't realize he wasn't scoring a Bugs Bunny cartoon, because that's what the jokey, hokey music is reminiscent of. And that's a shame. The best comedy scores are ones that don't seem to know they're comedy scores; instead the Hitchhiker's score prances around as if wearing clown shoes and oversized pants.

Visually the film works great. Marvin is not at all how I imagine most Hitchhiker's fans would have ever pictured him, but his design makes total sense. The giant head, big enough to hold "a brain the size of a planet," makes him almost look like some kind of cute Japanese toy, which is a great contrast to his personality (and, as a bonus, should help Marvin-based toys fly off shelves). Zaphod’s second head and third arm are also treated differently than a fan would expect, though make sense given the film medium. In a book or radio play, picturing a character with a second head--that only occasionally does something significant--on his shoulder isn't much of a distraction. But when you have to constantly stare at it on film, the head would always have to be doing something important in order to justify its presence, not to mention the cost of digitally adding it as a special effect to every frame. In the movie, Zaphod's second head is located just below his original, out of sight along with his third arm for most of the time, popping up only when needed. Later--minor spoiler--it's even removed completely, and, to be honest, I didn't miss it and had no problem enjoying the character without it (I imagine this is due mainly to Rockwell’s great performance).

The film opens with a musical number wherein the dolphins of the world sing a song "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" before abandoning the planet to its doom. While I thought the song went on too long for its thin, one-gag premise, they had to have SOMETHING going on during the opening credits and the segment does set up the tone for the rest of the film. If you're not able to accept singing dolphins who leap up into space, you're probably not going to like the rest of the film.

As big a hit as I want to the film to be, I can't recommend it to everyone. The humor is very British absurdist, so anyone who simply doesn't "get" Monty Python would be better off sticking to their low-brow Adam Sandler comedies. The film isn’t "great cinema" (in the same way the book isn't "fine literature") but it still is quite a lot of fun as a diversion from reality. Douglas Adams' story insists that you allow him to turn your brain into Silly Putty, which he then twists, stretches and bends to allow you to accept the outlandish universe he's created. I keep recalling a quote from the back cover of my copy of another of Adams' books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, from the Philadelphia Inquirer that asserts, "...Douglas Adams is the skateboard on which the thinking person plays hooky from the universe..." I couldn't have said it better myself. While there are flaws in the film (the love story, music, etc.), it's still quite a fun ride and definitely worth seeing if you're the kind of person who you think could appreciate it.


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