Let it be known right off the bat that I am a virgin of the Hitchhiker’s Guide story. Save for a few small instances where Douglas Adams’ largely adored book brushed by in passing conversation with friends, I am a newbie to this cult phenomenon. Because of this, I walked into the theater viewing myself as the perfect guinea pig for the uninitiated.
To say that Hitchhiker is lunacy would be an understatement of galactic proportions (rimshot). Nearly every frame of this film is filled with either a sight gag, an off-the-hook take on our society and civilization, or both. Picture George Lucas being given the directing reigns to Airplane! instead of the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams. Having heard that the screenplay and film are fairly faithful to Adams’ original work, one can only conclude that Adams was not only a fine observer of everyday human behavior, but also one heck of a tongue-in-cheek comedian.
The story is quite simple and serves mainly as a floating device for spectacular special effects and production sets. Arthur Dent (Freeman, in a fine example of inspired casting) is a run-of-the-mill type of guy who suddenly finds himself in a strange predicament; his house is about to be demolished as the city would much prefer a highway bypass in its place. As he is protesting the workers and their bulldozers, his good friend Ford Prefect (Def) shows up with a shopping cart full of brew to sidetrack the anxious demolition men. They take off, and Arthur soon learns that not only is the Earth minutes away from being destroyed, but his friend Ford is actually from another planet!
Ford uses his powers to hitch a ride with the Vogons, a race of very unsavory fat creatures. They are known galaxy-wide for their bureaucratic nature and bad poetry. After being discovered by the Vogons, Ford and Arthur escape only to find themselves on board another ship with Trillian (Deschanel), a woman Arthur had met briefly back on Earth, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell), the incompetent President of the universe, and Marvin (voiced brilliantly by Alan Rickman), the ever-depressed robot. They are all on a mission to answer “the ultimate question.” Also thrown in for good measure is Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), the arch-enemy of Beeblebrox.
As you can tell, even if by name only, Hitchhiker has an interesting ensemble cast of characters. They each have their own intricacies and will be memorable for many moviegoers who see the film, especially those who are already familiar with them via Adams’ book or the BBC miniseries.
The big problem with Hitchhiker, and it is a crucial one, is that the middle section of the film really isn’t that interesting. We are greeted with a flawless introduction involving the thoughts of dolphins. It is beautifully shot and narrated, but it serves as only a tease for what the film could have been. Instead of being a revelatory film adaption of one man’s quirky thoughts, we get a surprisingly standard kids film that is more repetitious than rousing. By the time we reach the halfway point of the film, Beeblebrox’s stupidity has gotten severely one-note, Arthur is simply left to gasp at everything that happens, and Ford becomes a bystander. Zooey Deschanel’s Trillian seems to only exist to wink at the camera and participate in a half-baked romance with Arthur. This is all very disappointing, to say the least.
And as for Beeblebrox, the fact that Rockwell and the filmmakers went for a shameless George W. Bush impersonation is not only stale, but serves to further boil the film’s political undertones. Obviously the youngsters will not pick up on this, but the film’s attempts to roast the President and make political statements for the older folks is surprisingly generic.
Despite all this, the film does have its moments. When the screenplay strikes a right chord, it strikes hard. The best scenes are the mini-cartoons of Adams’ random thoughts about humans, animals, and our lovely planet Earth. They are positively smile-inducing, but seem out-of-place in a film that is constantly on the move to the next action sequence. Also, Malkovich is given a scene of genius that is simply forgotten about by the screenplay after it ends.
Garth Jennings’ direction is spot on. He pulls off this special effects-heavy film with ease, and the movie’s imminent success will certainly lead to more work for him. He has done a tremendous job with Adams’ screenplay (with assistance from Karey Kirkpatrick), which was completed shortly before Adams’ untimely death. We can all be sure that this is how Adams wanted the film to be.
Hitchhiker is bordering on the brink of a recommendation from me, but I’m afraid I cannot fold. The film will most likely please Hitchhiker regulars, but for the rest of us it may leave quite a bit to be desired. I only wish that the film had lived up to the nuggets that it set forth in its opening sequence. What a scene to build on, but alas we only get a slightly above-average, manic studio offering.
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
Length: 110 Minutes
Rating: PG for thematic elements, action and mild language.
Theatrical Release: April 29, 2005
Directed by: Garth Jennings
Written by: Douglas Adams & Karey Kirkpatrick. Based upon the book by Douglas Adams.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor