On the one hand, it would be hard to see the film of Douglas Adams’ cult sci-fi novel “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” and not be a little disappointed. Given that the bloody thing was some 20 years in the making and based on one of the most beloved books of the last century, if the end result hadn’t been some cosmic mélange of Monty Python, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Citizen Kane” (which it isn’t, by the way, not that that’s any criticism) how could one feel otherwise? But once you’ve gotten past the inevitable (if ridiculous) letdown, it’s possible to see the film for what it is: a marvelous adventure that’s a slap in the face to the cynical product glutting the multiplexes right now.
The script – the result of two decades of tinkering by numerous writers, including the late Adams himself, who moved to California before his death to work on the film – gets to business with admirable speed and ingenuity. After the narrator (Stephen Fry at his driest) informs us that the second smartest species on earth was in fact dolphins, we get a Busy Berkeley-esque musical number performed by dolphins to the tune of “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.” Within a matter of minutes, we’re introduced to Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), the English everyman and his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who’s actually an alien, and the Earth is demolished by an alien construction fleet making way for an interstellar bypass; but not before Prefect hitches them a ride on a Vogon ship. To explain much more would bore fans of Adams and ruin the surprise for everyone else. Suffice it to say the universe is traversed, extremely improbable things happen and some very big questions are asked about life, the universe and everything; though not necessarily answered.
Given what a Frankenstein creation the final script is, the end result is a revelation. The digressive nature of Adams’ books is retained enough that it provides comic relief and some welcome exposition but not so much that it slows things down for the sake of fan boy repetition – for a good example of this, witness the Monty Python “Holy Grail” musical “Spamalot”, more a karaoke performance than anything else, a fate that could easily have befallen “Hitchhiker’s”. Whenever things get a bit baffling for folks (“why did Ford just shove a fish in Arthur’s ear?”), here comes Fry to explain in his plumy, drawing-room English voice what’s going on, with the aid of the Guide itself, a sort of galactic e-book travel guide-cum-Encyclopedia Britannica, if such a thing had been written by smart-a*s college dropouts.
There’s similarly little to complain about when it comes to the cast, a nimble and gratifyingly star-free bunch. Freeman underplays Dent when he could easily have acted the buffoon, while Mos Def’s droll performance earns another feather for his dramaturgical cap. Sam Rockwell, as the two-headed President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, hams it up within an inch of his life, coming off like a grinning mix of Elvis and George W. Bush (the accent is a sort of surfer Texan twang that somehow works), but having a good enough time that he gets away with it. At first, Zooey Deschanel (as the girl fought over by Arthur and Zaphod) seems a fish out of water and far too sincere for this wry bunch, but when the script treads into more emotionally weighty material later on – a transition it handles with aplomb – she fairly saves the film. And it must be said that if Oscar nominations were given out for voice performances, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, as the voices of the infinitely brilliant computer Deep Thought and Marvin the Paranoid Android (a marvelous creation, by the way, exactly how many readers may have imagined him), respectively, would be tops on the list.
While most everything came together so well, it must be said that there is only so much you could do with a book of this sort, which was really much more easily adaptable to radio (the medium that Adams started out writing for) than film. Thusly, an unfortunately large number of sequences had to be left out in the interest of moving things along, a measure of the book’s humor had to be jettisoned as well, and the whole matter is wrapped up none too seamlessly in the end. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so obvious had a more experienced director than first-timer Garth Jennings been at the helm. While Jennings has to be commended on finally bringing this project across the finish line with so much of its better parts intact – not to mention the seamless melding of some truly eye-popping special effects – he doesn’t have the best way with actors, with some early scenes coming off pretty stilted. But these are minor issues and quickly forgotten as the characters are zipping through space, being read some of the worst poetry in the universe, and dealing with the pathologically depressed Marvin: “Brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cause I don’t.”
Would this movie have been as enjoyable as it was had it not come so quick on the heels of viewing something like the vile and unimaginative “Sin City”? Probably not. But the end result is that Adams fans will have to content themselves with the fact that, while the film is not perfect, it is indeed the best they could realistically have hoped for (in other words, there’s likely a reason it took 20 years to get to theaters), and everyone else can just enjoy its quirky humor and sublime sense of wonder – two things lamentably absent not just from science fiction films of late, but film in general.