My mother, who was an avid reader of the Hitchhiker’s series, is very interested to know if the new Hitchhiker’s movie is worth watching. I think it is, assuming you go to a cut-price theatre.
Indeed, I would categorize the Disney/Touchstone movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be like a eulogy for an old friend, recounting the highs and lows of a full life. It doesn’t recapture the glory days, but it remains respectful of the deceased’s memory.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ends with a simple dedication “For Douglas”, and the movie does feel like a tribute to a career cut way too short (author Douglas Adams died suddenly at the age of 49). The screenplay was one of the last things Douglas was working on, and it still bears lots of his fingerprints, but there is a blunted edge, here, that knocks the episode a few notches down from perfection.
A caveat: it’s been ages since I heard the Hitchhiker’s radio plays, and I was in my pre-teens when I had his books read to me. So I can’t tell you whether or not the movie was faithful to these mediums. The version of Hitchhiker’s that sticks in my mind, however, is the six-part BBC television production, and watching the movie was like watching a big-budget remake, with bits added. Watch for cameo appearances by the TV version of Marvin, and by Simon Jones — the man I see as the original Arthur Dent.
I’m told that Douglas Adams saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as an evolving work. He had a hand in all of the remakes of his original plays, and none of them are entirely faithful to each other. So, I’m very forgiving when it comes to this movie taking liberties with the original material. For two-thirds of the movie, Hitchhiker’s maintains most of the tone of Adams’ work. There are jokes aplenty, lots of absurdism (a new bit, involving the Church of the Gigantic Tissue, is obviously Adams’ work and well worth seeing), and the narrative follows the high points of the first book.
The movie is also well cast. Martin Freeman is a perfect choice to play the new Arthur Dent, an everyman who acts both as Alice to the new wonderland, and the sanest member of the Heart of Gold’s crew. He is complemented by Mos Def as Ford Prefect who, along with Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox, is the quirky heart of the film. Jim Henson’s Creature Productions also do a star turn, here, bringing aliens to life and being especially successful, in my opinion, with the Vogons.
Special note must be made of the vocal performances of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman, the Guide and Marvin the paranoid robot respectively. Their deadpan style fits their respective characters perfectly, and is fully in keeping with Adams’ style. The Guide’s seguays and the illustrations that accompany are also a hoot. I wish more could have been done with Marvin, Eddie the ship’s computer, and the doors of happiness.
Then there is Zooey Deschanel’s Trillian. And here’s where we find the movie’s strenghts, and my problems with the film, all wrapped up in one. She is well cast, and the chemistry she shares with Freeman seems real, but she initially jarred me out of my suspension of disbelief. She was too sexy. I hadn’t pictured Trillian as sexy, or capable of a love interest with Arthur. It’s possible Sandra Dickenson of the BBC TV series is responsible for this, or it may be the fact that the love interest between Arthur and Trillian — as the last humans alive — is the clearest insertion into the film, and it doesn’t quite fit.
The movie is pitch-perfect in tone and its summarizing of the events of the book for the first thirty minutes, or so. Then it starts to meander. For some reason, a number of Adams’ jokes don’t make the cut (including, sadly, the “safe” joke, even though the set-up for it remains). Some plot elements get introduced but are not followed up upon. John Malkovich does a great job as the character Humma Kavula (an Adams’ insertion), but quickly gets dropped, his plotline unfinished.
The movie almost goes off the rails entirely when the love-interest story reaches its climax. It’s only by good comic timing that the writers are able to pull back on this and give us some further laughs. Arthur is given a new character arc, that resolves itself well on screen (rather than a person forced to travel the universe, he becomes a universal traveller of his own choosing), but takes the tone of the movie a few steps off of the tone of the book. As an homage to Douglas Adams’ work, this movie is satisfying and unsettling at the same time.
In the end, I believe the movie to be a success. If you don’t get Adams’, you might not get this film. If you do get Adams, you may be a little saddened by this flick, not by anything the film has done, but by the sense of how much better it could have been if Douglas had been able to stick around to see it through. As a tribute, it is more than adequate, and Adams’ fans should definitely go.