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Is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Really a Bad Movie?

                We all know The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy! Or at least we should. Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comic masterpiece is a touchstone of British perspective and wit and ought to be required reading in either English or Philosophy classes the world over. It started as a radio series then became a brief television series and a book series throughout the 1970s and 80s…and in 2005 a movie. Generally fans reacted to the movie with anything from “meh” to “rape of the series”, while non-fans reacted with a resounding “wha---“. The film is a bit of a strange anomaly, directed by Garth Jennings who apart from 2007’s Son of Rambow has no other film credits to his name. Also while it’s title would suggest a general adaptation of the first book (or first four episodes of the TV series), it takes a few of the plot threads from that book and the general direction of the narrative but adds other side adventures. So for a film that while receiving of some critical praise, wasn’t well received by a lot of fans and disoriented a lot of non-fans, is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a bad movie?
                It should be understood that Douglas Adams had been trying for over two decades to turn The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into a movie. He’d completed a script by his death in 2001 that was edited and rewritten by Karey Kirkpatrick of DreamWorks. But some of the more unusual elements of the film had been part of his initial script including most of Viltvodle 6 and the Point of View gun. And while the Vogsphere segue was seemingly unnecessary, its design and character felt very Python (appropriate as Adams wrote a couple sketches with them). In fact design on a whole is one of the film’s strong suits. Maybe the best part of the film are its visuals which are wonderfully eccentric and unique and they really work well as The Hitchhikers Guide is wonderfully eccentric and unique. The designs of Marvin and the Heart of Gold for instance are more memorable than anything from the show. Magrathea in any of its incarnations, and the Planet Factory Floor are very imaginative and interesting. And I have to give credit for the use of practical effects. The fact that Marvin and the Vogons aren’t CG is such a relief as they feel so real and in tune with the original series.
                The story still follows the basic premise that begin every incarnation of the series. Arthur Dent an ordinary British human being on the morning his house is to be demolished is rescued by his friend Ford Prefect an alien in disguise as the Earth is blown up to make way for a Hyperspace Bypass. After an encounter with the villainous bureaucratic Vogons, they wind up on the Heart of Gold a ship stolen by intergalactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox who’s accompanied by the terminally depressed android Marvin, and Tricia “Trillian” McMillan an Earth woman whom Arthur met at a party and “totally blew it with.” They then set off on a mission to find the planet Magrathea and learn the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything –you know, that old story.  For the adaptation of the stuff taken from the book and series, the film does a good job as it feels just as weird and funny as the series always has, though some situations particularly on Earth were rushed, but once the planet got destroyed the pacing and tone settled much better. But to add to the runtime, additional storylines are created and it’s here where the film is most divisive. The side quests to Viltvodle 6 and the Vogsphere were new and didn’t really need to be included. The former was only there to get rid of one of Zaphod’s heads, get Trillian captured (her capture which isn’t well-shot), and bring up the Point of View gun none of which have much relevance later on. And as I noted for the Vogsphere I appreciated that planets’ aesthetic but felt we were being shown too much of the Vogons and they didn’t need to be major antagonists. Some of the exposition was also awkward and the mice were too obviously foreshadowed (but the casting choice to make them appear to be immortal kids was clever). There were other less important plot problems: the idea of coordinates defeating the purpose of an Infinite Improbability Drive; but the story addition of the most note was the expanded relationship between Arthur and Trillian which is clearly the film trying to make something Hollywood. In the series Arthur and Trillian don’t have a romance or even that much of a relationship which I do think is one of the things lacking in those other incarnations. As the last two humans in the galaxy you’d think there’d be something between them. So I am glad the film got across something and am very glad we got to see exactly how Arthur blew it with her; but their romance suffers a tad from Hugh Grant Syndrome. Making Arthur the befuddled-nice-guy-who-the-girl-should-be-with-but-isn’t isn’t a terrible idea as Martin Freeman proved in The Office he can pull that off, and because of his and Zooey Deschanel’s chemistry it works well at times, but the way it’s brought up often feels forced and at times reminds me of when Seinfeld was trying to push Jerry and Elaine together. It’s not always meant to be. And if you read the books, you’ll know Arthur does get a proper love interest later on.
                Arthur as played by Martin Freeman by the way is terrific. This was post-Tim Canterbury but pre-John Watson and Bilbo Martin Freeman and his performance is one of the best things in the movie. I may be biased as this is one of my favourite characters and actors but you can’t deny he gets across Arthur’s anxieties, outlook, and attitude brilliantly. Zooey Deschanel fits into her quirky adventurous role very well. And Bill Nighy is also just about perfect. Sam Rockwell is an ideal choice for Zaphod. Too bad his character wasn’t really Zaphod. Yeah his womanizing rock star Bill Clinton was good but the films characterization of him was off. He wasn’t much more than a prima donna political dreamer, which is part of the character, but Zaphod is a lot smarter and more charming. He’s someone who believably could woo a girl into travelling the galaxy with him (kinda like the Doctor). It feels like his personality is tailored to make Arthur look like the better choice of a love triangle. And the head thing was always going to be a problem and the way portrayed it here didn’t fully work. Could it have been that hard to make some kind of animatronic second head? It worked for Mark Wing-Davey. He has some good moments and Rockwell is great, but I’d have loved to see him tackle the real Zaphod. Mos Def even more though is the odd one. He’s serviceable but doesn’t quite fit Ford, certainly not in the way David Dixon did. Some of Ford’s lines just sound awkward coming from him. If they were looking for diversity I think someone like David Oyelewo would have fit the bill better. Of course I also think Mitchell & Webb would have been a perfect Arthur and Ford. The supporting cast was also mostly good. I liked Anna Chancellor and Helen Mirren. They needed a little person to play the newly designed Marvin and this being 5 B.D. (Before Dinklage), Warwick Davies was decent. Alan Rickman was pretty damn good as the voice of Marvin (I can’t think of a more depressed British voice except perhaps Michael Gambon). The best casting choice was Stephen Fry though as he not only delivered with his perfect voice as the Guide making every one of its lines great, but it was also good to have a former friend of Adams involved to such a degree. There are also some great cameos from Kelly Macdonald, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Bailey, original Arthur Simon Jones, and the original Marvin.
                The film really hits the mark in the comedy. Admittedly most of the best comes directly from the books or series and there are a few from those that I wish were kept in. Though maybe I can see why they left out the Babel fish and God’s existence bit as if you’re trying to appeal to an American audience its best not to include a line that’ll ensure a sizable number of Bibles being pelted at the screen. But the deadpan scenes were hilarious, physical gags really funny, and the witty dialogue a lot of the time from Fry, exceptionally humorous (though Freeman got some great lines too: “anything else he’s got two of?”). In that sense it really felt like Adams and they made good to emphasise him as well. Whether it was little things like making Deep Thought resemble an apple computer (Adams was a big supporter of Apple), or bigger things like the shot consisting of the Heart of Gold turning into his face, they knew how to pay homage and respect to the creator. And the music which employs both the original series theme and new compositions is good. Good luck getting “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” out of your head.
                So The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has problems and is by no means a great film. It has excessive storylines, a few poorer characterizations, and plot holes (how did Zaphod know Ford’s Earth name again?), but it’s not a bad film. It’s still entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, and a visual treat. And I think Douglas Adams would be legitimately proud of it. If nothing else the trailer is awesome. I actually do want to see Hitchhikers’ Guide rebooted though preferably as a TV series where it can spend more time on the details and ideas of the books and where we can actually adapt those other books which have some really fun and imaginative material. My favourite is probably The Restaurant at the End of the Universe which I’d really like to see. Just be sure to bring back Stephen Fry.

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