The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
2005Director: Garth Jennings
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel
Sure, that’s easy for you to say. But just imagine being the one to take the helm of one of the most hotly anticipated radio-show-to-book-to-made-for-TV-movie-to-text-adventure-game-to-film-adaptations ever. One that’s a cult classic, even. Then up the ante to include the rather recent death of this cult classic’s author, thereby securing his status as an untouchable saint. Still not scared? Imagine doing it for some of the most brutal fans on the planet…
So, in their defense, writer Karey Kirkpatrick and director Garth Jennings were pretty much screwed from the start when they endeavored to make The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s really nothing they could have done right, which is why it was remarkable that they managed to honor the Guide’s kooky spirit as well as they did.
For the uninitiated, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is about everyman Arthur Dent (played by genius everyman Martin Freeman, a.k.a. The Office’s everyman Tim Canterbury), waking one morning to find his humble home in the crosshairs of a fleet of bulldozers. Seems his domicile is slated for destruction to make way for a bypass road. Unbeknownst to him and at nearly the exact same time, planet Earth itself is about to be blown up for, of all things, an intergalactic bypass road.
"Oh, so now I'm a racist just because I'm not attracted to guys with giant metal orbs for heads?"
Saving Arthur Dent at the last minute, and perhaps lending a bit of perspective to his sorrowful but ultimately irrelevant fate is alien, researcher and intergalactic hitchhiker Ford Prefect (the also brilliantly cast Mos Def, giving me yet another reason to regret missing The Woodsman). After catching a brief and nearly disastrous ride on a Vogon ship (a race of aliens reviled for their bureaucratic, unsympathetic natures and terrible poetry), they wind up on the stolen spaceship of galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox. Beeblebrox, played by Sam Rockwell at his scenery-chomping finest, is obviously channeling a mix of George W. Bush for dubious leadership and general idiocy, Bill Clinton for cheesy charisma, and the interchangeable front-man of every single hair-band from the late 80’s for pure, over-the-top rock star-ness. The result? Delicious, and one of the best things about the movie.
Once on the ship, Arthur runs into a girl he met at a costume party (Zooey Deschanel) and ultimately blew it with when he declined an invitation to Madagascar and watched her get swept off her feet by what he thought was the worst pickup line ever…the one Beeblebrox laid on her when he asked “Hey baby. Wanna’ see my spaceship?” Arthur is nonplussed to the point of outrage to discover that Trillian, formerly the Darwin-costumed girl he knew as Tricia McMillan, is now Beeblebrox’s girlfriend and the brains behind his…whatever.
The four embark on a journey to search for, not the answer to life, the universe and everything (which is 42, by the way), but the ultimate question. Much Monty Python-style kookiness ensues.
Now, I’m hard pressed to think of a single director off the top of my head that has transitioned smoothly from directing music videos to directing films, and Garth Jennings is no exception. Each scene is a chunky (albeit, tasty) bite of its own that, when strung together, comes nowhere near a cohesive whole. However, more generous fans of the book will recall that this was the style in which Douglas Adams actually wrote the Hitchhiker series. Word is that he couldn’t form a cohesive plot if his life depended on it. So, in that respect, the film adaptation is actually pretty faithful to the book. Faithful to a fault, that is. After all, not everyone going to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will necessarily be a fan of the book, and to be honest, a film can only benefit from a smoother flow. Writing style does not always transition well onscreen, and this is a glaring example.
As for the much-ballyhooed artistic license taken with the tale, I find myself waffling on a few counts. For one, I can’t believe how screamingly anti-American some of the comments are on every Hitchhiker’s Guide discussion board I’ve found. What the hell, exactly, is wrong with Mos Def playing Ford Prefect? He was outstanding. And who didn’t love Sam Rockwell in the role of Zaphod Beeblebrox? Are they to be dismissed out of hand in favor of a strictly British cast? And why is this so often referred to as a film “only dumb Americans would enjoy”? To borrow a phrase from the very culture I usually defer to on all counts, that’s just bollocks.
This is quite a tableau of...something.
And while I’m usually the first to cry foul at the addition of romantic interest to build or propel plot, the boy-meets-girl premise of Hitchhiker’s Guide is not quite as revisionist as the die-hards would have you believe. Sure, the plot device isn’t authentic to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but Arthur does, in fact, have a meaningful romance later in the series. And so what if this is used to pad the plot a bit? It isn’t nearly as destructive to the overall spirit as the naysayers claim it is.
Also, I admittedly had to struggle with the recollection of Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) as a character before doing some internet research and discovering that he is indeed a creation birthed especially for the movie. I was, I think, in junior high when I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and was beginning to dismiss my fuzzy memory as the usual early senility that seems to hit some of us in our 30’s. Fortunately my brain is not nearly as shot full of holes as I thought. But early Alzheimer’s aside, Malkovich’s handkerchief worshipping cult leader obsessed with his loss of galactic presidency at the hands of the moronic Beeblebrox is such a seamless fit that I think, heretic that I am, Adams would have approved. At the very least, my roommate and I are having a great time fake-sneezing and snot-blessing at every available opportunity, so I say Malkovich stays.
All in all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Herculean undertaking that has, all things considered, gone remarkably well. Jennings and Kirkpatrick have done the impossible and made the adaptation of a cult classic that must at least be acknowledged as “acceptable”, which is a helluva lot better than most have done with less. Both the top-notch CGI and the fantastic offerings from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop afford plenty of tasty eye candy. I cannot possibly stress enough how well-cast this film is, Yankee actors and all. My only complaint, I suppose, is the vaguely “unsatisfied” feeling I left with, which I am owing to the film’s overall lack of plot unity. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to see this one again. Nonetheless, the lack of cohesiveness isn’t a fatal flaw, and the soul of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains blessedly intact and worth a look-see, even if you’re just a sci-fi nerd that couldn’t get into that evening’s showing of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.
Now, if they can only resist that fatal urge to follow with a sequel…
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-05-26