Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy / *** (PG)

Arthur Dent: Martin Freeman
Zaphod Beeblebrox: Sam Rockwell
Ford Prefect: Mos Def
Trillian: Zooey Deschanel
Slartibartfast: Bill Nighy
Questular Rontok: Anna Chancellor
Humma Kavula: John Malkovich
Marvin: Warwick Davis
Voice of Marvin: Alan Rickman

Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by Garth Jennings. Screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the book by Adams. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, action and mild language).

Aaaarh…! Grrr.mabble dopgrrumph. Ummmm. augh! Argh. Hmph! That is the sound of frustration. Frustration inspired by the conundrum of adapting literature to a medium that combines all art forms… the moving, talking picture. There are film adaptations of books that hardly resemble their source material. There are adaptations that follow their source material to the “T”. There are successes and failures on both sides of this coin. I personally like it when a film strays far from its literary source. I have trouble keeping myself from hitting people who say, “Sure, it was good, but it was nothing like the book. Why do they do that?” Because some books would just be boring to watch. Because film is a more compressed medium in which it would be tedious to watch every detail of some books’ stories. Because the word, translated literally more often than not loses something. But there are some great films made from books that have been religiously faithful to their original inceptions, the recent Harry Potter film series comes to mind (hopefully it will not suffer too much when screenwriter Steve Kloves leaves the series after this winter’s Goblet of Fire).

I have read Douglas Adams’s original novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and enjoyed it a good deal for its oddly original outlook on the world as we perceive it and how our human perception of the universe could be so severely flawed in how it all actually works. I am not, however, one of the book’s ravenous fans that has worn his copy so ragged and thin that it seems he must read it everyday and never leave home without it. My copy of the book is ragged and worn because I bought it at a garage sale where its previous owner must have decided it was all just too silly for him to keep. It is silly. It is supposed to be. But silliness in literature is not entirely without value, or meaning for that matter, so it is inevitable that a tome that has reached the cult status of this sort should be adapted to the film format, which so frequently embraces silliness and ravenous cult followings of fans so readily.

I have also seen the 80’s BBC television version of the book, or at least as much of it as I could stand. It was a faithful adaptation done in the style of the old Dr. Who BBC series with unbearably bad production values. This new version finally sees the Hollywood budget necessary to portray this unique space adventure. Honestly, I’m not really sure how closely this more condensed film follows the book. I’m sure there are details that have evacuated my memory of the story that also were ejected from this screenplay, but since it was redrafted by Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) from a screenplay penned by Adams himself, it probably plays much as Adams wished. It seemed to be very much the same as the book to me. Which brings us back to that conundrum…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a very strange book. It is also a very strange movie.
From the opening credits of the film it is obvious that the filmmakers are hitting the right notes as far as Adams’s strange sense of humor goes. The opening credits run as a Broadway musical style song plays. “So long, and thanks for the fish,” is what all the dolphins on the Earth sing as a farewell before they leave the planet which is scheduled for demolition, but since human beings are only the third most intelligent creatures on the planet (behind the dolphins and another pair of beings I will not reveal here), no one else on the planet is aware of its imminent destruction.

Arthur Dent is one of two humans who survive the Earth’s destruction by hitching a ride -- along with his friend Ford Prefect, an alien that only reveals this fact to Arthur in a pub a mere 12 minutes before the planet’s demise -- on one of the very alien ships sent to destroy it. Ironically, before Ford revealed both his true identity and the crushing news that Earth was about to be destroyed to Arthur, Arthur was trying to prevent a crew of contractors from leveling his home for a new thoroughfare. This is ironic since the Vogons, the race of aliens who destroy the Earth, demolish it in order to build a space super-highway in its place.

The other survivor of Earth happens to be a girl named Trillian, whom Arthur blew his big chance with only a few nights before. She asked him to go far away with her somewhere, and as he hesitated with his answer she was swept off her feet by a flamboyant cock who claims he can take her away in his spaceship. This ridiculous man turns out to be Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. Oh, and there’s also a clinically depressed robot named Marvin. And Zaphod’s ship has this thing called an improbability drive, which, when pushed, will take the occupants to the least likely place in the galaxy for them to end up. And when they get there they take any possible form until normalcy sets back in. And….

To go any further describing this film’s wacky plot would only serve to confuse and confound, and could never convince one who is not yet interested in this insanity trip to see it. Despite the complexities of the stories and relationships of the characters, plot is not really what this story is about anyway. What really fuels the fandom of this material is the ideas contained within the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book in the story that has become the most popular compendium of who is who and what is what and how it all works in the universe. The guide offers definitions of species, historical accounts, and explanations of how things work. These, let’s call them “lessons”, are presented as animations in the film. This book even provides accounts of events that have not yet happened in the course of the story, and those who are fans should certainly not miss the credit cookie that closes the precedings with that dry Adams humor of obliterating all your previous conceptions and sets up the sequel.

When initially reading this book, I found it nearly impossible to imagine how many of these characters could be portrayed in a film, since some have deformities such as two heads. First time feature film director Garth Jennings (director of many music videos and commercials) however, manages what seems to be the impossible by assembling the perfect cast. Martin Freeman, whom most people would know as the one sane employee on the BBC series The Office, is that quintessential cubical Joe who just chugs through the daily grind and is the least likely candidate ever in film for a space adventure. Perhaps his casting was in part due to his office lackey role on the popular British television series. He also pulls out one of the film’s biggest and most British laughs when the group is faced with a DMV type of line they must wait through. “Leave this to me. I’m British. If there is one thing we know, it is how to queue.”

Mos Def (HBO’s Something the Lord Made) brings the right amount of oddity to his human looking, if not acting, hitchhiking alien. Zooey Deschanel (Elf) plays Arthur’s love interest Trillian, and maybe I am just a sucker for her, but take a look at those almond eyes as Arthur confesses his true feelings to her and tell me she can’t just melt your insides. While little person Warwick Davis (Willow) provides the physical performance for sad little metal Marvin, Alan Rickman’s (Love Actually) weary voice sells his melancholy. Bill Nighy (Still Crazy), having made a career of late as utterly wacked-out philosophers on life, shows up in the final act as a typically loony Slatribartfast and even manages to add some poignancy to this lunacy. But it is Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) who steals the show as the two-headed madcap Zaphod Beeblebrox. I don’t think the two heads turned out in anyway anyone may have imagined them before, but they work visually both to allow Rockwell the most acting freedom and to provide a few sight gags.

Admittedly many people will find much of this material utterly mind boggling and therefore uninteresting. Ironically, in a film filled with ironies if you hadn’t noticed, the film suffers in exactly the opposite way the book does. With the relentless flurry of events that open the story, the book grabbed me and sucked me in with ease. The film begins with the same vigorous flurry, but it plays more like a mind numbing experience, leaving the audience exasperated until the relentless insanities that are presented might actually seem boring. As the book went forward and leveled out, my interest began to wane, wishing for more of the breakneck pace of the opening passages. The film, however, finds its stride in its final act as somehow all the silliness starts to make some kind of twisted sense and it doesn’t seem quite so pointless as it did to begin with. Perhaps it proves the point of the Hitchhiker’s Guide and the clearly printed words of its back cover, “DON’T PANIC”, and everything will be all right in the end.

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