It’s hard to write a review of a movie based on a book that’s near to your heart, as Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is to mine, especially when said film comes close to capturing the spirit of the source material but falls short in some inexplicable ways. Fans will be able to fill in the gaps—or simply realize, in the case of plot holes, that Adams was no better at constructing a solid plot—but I’m sure neophytes will be left scratching their heads over certain things.
If you’re new to this whole “Hitchhiker’s” thing, here’s the basic rundown: Arthur Dent, a classic everyman, wakes up one morning to find that his house is about to be demolished to make way for a freeway bypass. He promptly lies down in front of the bulldozers in protest.
Along comes his pal, Ford Prefect, who is really from another planet. Ford knows that a race of vile creatures called Vogons are on their way to demolish the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and he wants to save his friend. In the first of several inexplicable changes from the book, Ford’s Bugs Bunny-esque exchange with the man in charge of the demolition, which results in that man lying down in Arthur’s place, is replaced with him simply tossing some beer to the workers to distract them.
Of course, in the book, Ford is not only a trickster but also someone whose goal in life is to find the ultimate party. He’s on Earth to research it as part of his job working for the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which is a book with entries about everything from the definition of space to the importance of towels. Luckily, most of the funniest Guide entries have been retained for the film, such as the one about space, but the ones that would actually help explain bits of the plot to newbies—such as the importance of towels, which no galactic hitchhiker should leave home without—have been dropped.
Mos Def plays Ford as a wry counterpart to Martin Freeman’s befuddled Arthur Dent, but I felt like he was incomplete, given his trickster/slacker sides to his personality that are missing from the movie. In fact, once we get beyond the first act, Ford spends most of the film simply coming along for the ride, rather than actively doing stuff to move the plot forward. Ultimately, I feel like Ford is a cipher.
However, I enjoyed the film versions of Arthur and Trillian, a woman Arthur had met at a party a couple weeks previous. She left that shindig with Zaphod Beeblebrox, another space alien who happens to be the President of the Galaxy.
I really like the way Sam Rockwell portrays Zaphod; in the all-too-brief making of featurette on this disc, he describes the kitchen sink approach he took to the character, which was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, another odd change from the book comes in the way Zaphod’s second head was handled: rather than having it simply sit next to the first one, it’s contained under his chin, of all places. The commentary track with producer Robbie Stamp and Adams colleague Sean Solle explains that this was Douglas’ idea, but it doesn’t make it any less dumb. There’s some explanation of Zaphod using the second head to store part of his brain, but none of it makes a lot of sense.
After Ford and Arthur are dumped out of the Vogon ship that Ford managed to hitch a ride with, they’re picked up by Zaphod, who has kidnapped himself and stolen a new ship called Heart of Gold, which contains an experimental device known as an Improbability Drive. Because the Heart of Gold can make the improbable happen, no matter how unlikely it may seem, Ford and Arthur are naturally rescued from the vacuum of space. It turns out Trillian is still hanging around with Zaphod, who also has the wonderfully droll Marvin the paranoid android onboard. Alan Rickman does a superb job voicing Marvin; while I’m on the subject of voice-overs, I should also commend Stephen Fry, who narrates the Guide entries.
Zaphod is looking for the planet Magrathea, where he hopes to learn the question that’s at the heart of life, the universe, and everything. You see, millions of years ago, a race of pan-dimensional beings built a computer called Deep Thought, which was supposed to give them the answer to life, the universe and everything. After a 7.5-million year wait, however, they’re given the answer “42.” Deep Thought explains that they need to know the question to understand the answer, and it says it can design a computer program that will use organic life to arrive at said question. That program is, of course, Earth, which was demolished just minutes before the program finished running (another thing that’s never stated in the film, although I think that’s a minor omission).
No one knows where Magrathea is, however, and the Heart of Gold instead takes them to the planet of Humma Kavula, a Douglas Adams-created character who was defeated by Zaphod in the last presidential election. Humma can tell Zaphod where Magrathea is, but in exchange for the coordinates, he takes Zaphod’s second head as collateral. A bit of dialogue later in the film suggests that Zaphod’s third arm, which is barely used in the movie, was taken too, but this is never explicitly stated. Humma, however, isn’t handing over the coordinates to be nice; he wants Zaphod to retrieve a weapon called the Point-of-View gun, another new element added to the story by Adams.
Unfortunately, the whole Humma sub-plot isn’t brought to a satisfactory conclusion by the end of the story, nor do we ever understand why Zaphod declares that he has a score to settle with Humma when the Heart of Gold arrives at his planet. These are just a couple of the several serious disconnects in the story. They’re offset somewhat by the sheer fun of the tale, along with the faithfully recreated Guide entries and the mostly well-rendered characters, but they’re still enough of a problem to bog the film down.
I should note that no version of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is like any of the others. The radio show, novel, British TV show, video game and film all start with the same basic idea but go in different directions, which was intentional on Adams’ part. He wanted to use the strength of each medium to play around with new ideas, rather than simply regurgitate the same story over and over. Adams wasn’t a master of plot, however, and plot is something that’s pretty darn important in the film world. As such, it should have been up to Jennings to rectify the problems with the plot in this film, but he clearly failed to do so.
Now that I’ve sufficiently flogged the film, let’s turn our attention to the DVD, which features a menu system meant to evoke the look and feel of the Guide. There’s an Improbability Drive option that simply takes you to a random spot on the disc; feel free to ignore it. You can also do without the Marvin’s Hangman game, which is simply boring. If you want, you can watch the “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” musical number from the beginning of the film without the opening credits but with the lyrics flashed on the screen. Another thing you could probably live without, though.
So, moving on to the useful stuff on this DVD, I have to say I’m really disappointed in the nine-minute making of featurette. Given the immense popularity of this book—along with the fact that Adams, having died in May 2001, deserved a fitting tribute on this disc—it’s a shame that we don’t have a nice, long documentary that recaps the history of “Hitchhiker’s,” complete with vintage interview clips from Adams and current comments from friends and colleagues (the guy was pals with everyone from Neil Gaiman to the members of Pink Floyd). I really hope Buena Vista puts together a two-disc Special Edition somewhere down the road. Adams’ legacy deserves it, even if this film missed the mark a bit.
We also get a Guide entry that was excised from the film. It explains the Babel fish in the context of the question of the existence of God, an amusing bit from the book that wouldn’t have added anything to the story if it had been left in. However, in the deleted scenes section, we get to see the Guide entry for Earth, which literally reads “Mostly harmless;” that would have been nice to leave in. After all, it gives us some insight into Ford’s work for the Guide and shows us what kind of guy he is: someone more interested in getting away with goofing off as much as possible than in doing an honest day’s work.
Of the other two deleted scenes, one was better off on the cutting room floor and the other should have been left in because it resolves a barely hinted at subplot involving the Vice-President of the Galaxy’s attraction to Zaphod. The latter really shows how Jennings doesn’t seem to understand what’s important and what isn’t when directing a movie. If he wanted to eliminate that subplot, he should have excised all traces of it, rather than simply cut out its resolution. The film is actually full of things that are present but never explained, such as the face-whacking shovel-like things on the Vogon planet (you get an explanation of them in the making of) and the importance of having your towel with you, a Guide entry that was crucial to the film, considering how often we see Ford and Arthur with their towels.
There’s also a pair of “really deleted scenes” that are basically the cast goofing around and doing whacked-out versions of said scenes. “Do Panic!” is actually pretty funny, although “Arthur Escapes” really isn’t. Ultimately, though, I would have liked to have seen some kind of tribute to Adams in place of something like this, or that dumb Marvin’s Hangman game.
Finally, we have two commentary tracks on this disc, one with Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy (who puts together a great performance as Slartibartfast), and the other with Stamp and Solle. The latter mentions Adams quite a bit, which isn’t surprising given the two participants’ relationship to the author, but it also offers quite a bit of dead air. However, Stamp and Solle do get into Adams’ contributions to the film, as well as discuss how the project finally came into being after kicking around Hollywood for years.
The other track is one of those group sessions where people start goofing off and saying silly things. In my experience, whenever you get a director together with a couple actors, they tend to go off on tangents and turn the session into a party. It’s not nearly as informative as the Stamp/Solle track, especially for fans of the book, since it doesn’t contain the same reverence for Adams’ role in the grand scheme of things.
Finally, if you visit the official Web site for the film, here’s the secret password: galaxy42. I felt it was my duty to pass that along, since Buena Vista provided it to me.