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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/09/05 23:28:47

"Twenty-five years in the making, and it's worth the wait."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you’re freaking out about the changes made in order to adapt Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” from page to screen, then you should perhaps calm down. Don’t Panic, even. Remember, before it was a book, it was a radio play. And then there was the TV show. Plus, there were records, which re-adapted the radio plays, but with tweaks all over. Oh, and don’t forget about the computer game version, the stage play, and the comic book. The point is, Adams himself has gleefully admitted that there are too many variations of his story, and he can’t keep them all straight, so why should we get all edgy when a few more alterations are made to make the thing fit into a feature film?

In fact, the only question worth asking here is: does it work as a movie? I mean, fans of the “Hitchhiker’s” series already know that the story, at its core, works perfectly in other forms. But as a film, how’s it holding up? The answer: very good, actually.

Granted, as with “Sin City,” “Hitchhiker’s” attempts to squeeze so much story into one movie that the thing zips a long a wee too quickly, perhaps risking alienating those unfamiliar with the source material. But, as with “Sin City,” the source material is so strong that the story holds up even when presented in such a slapdash manner.

The plot, for the uninitiated: mere earthling Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a bit shocked to learn that not only is his best friend, Ford (Mos Def), actually an alien, but Earth’s about to be demolished by an outer space wrecking crew in, oh, about five minutes. The duo hitch a ride on one starship, then another, finally winding up hanging out with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), brash, egotistical president of the galaxy; Trisha “Trillian” McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), the mind-bogglingly lovely lady who once met Arthur; and Marvin (body by Warwick Davis, voice by Alan Rickman), a terminally depressed android. They cruise around the galaxy on a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, which is one of the great inventions of modern day fiction, yet is so bizarre that to attempt to describe it might lessen its magic.

By the way, the Guide of the title is an electronic book - the most popular in the galaxy, we’re told - that provides countless information on every place and every species around. With narration by Stephen Fry and slick animated visuals, the Guide is also handy at filling in story gaps (we learn, for example, the horrors of alien poetry, or how the universe began, or the usage of a babelfish, a creature shoved into your ear that translates everything for you - one would guess that they’ve been using them in sci-fi movies for years already, considering the perfect English with which many movie aliens speak).

“Hitchhiker’s,” in all its various forms, works as a rabid parody of science fiction, but more importantly, it’s a biting satire on life on Earth. The Vogons, the aliens which wipe out the globe, are a species of soulless bureaucracy, their exasperating behavior familiar to anyone who’s ever had to fill out a government form. A religious cult (not in the books, it was developed by Adams directly for the film) who believes the universe was not created but sneezed out of the nose of an almighty will pull a chuckle or two from anyone who notices the sillier side of organized religion and its traditions. And there’s not much subtlety about an arrogant president with two faces.

This combination of rapid fire wit and aggressive commentary may put off some viewers, who prefer their entertainment to be light, bouncy, and thought-free. Make no mistake: the “Hitchhiker’s” franchise has always been and will always be nerdy satire designed for those who want smarts with their stories. The film version truly captures the whimsical cynicism at the series’ heart, the spark deep down that reminds us how screwy everything is, but don’t forget about the good stuff around us.

The film, in a refreshing surprise, plays up the good stuff. There’s a sharp to turn to the story during its final act in which the winking pessimism fades away, replaced by a sense of awe. This is true in the book, yes, but it’s more so here; Freeman’s everyman vibe teamed with Bill Nighy’s grinning “get this, mate” charm (Nighy’s character is so indescribable in such a limited space that I’ll just tell you to wait until you see the film to see what he’s up to), mixed with the scenes in which they appear together, leave the viewer with a sense of “look, it’s the people in it that make the world a mess; the world itself, well, now, how wonderful is that?” There are moments here of pure, unadulterated wonder that I just kept beaming throughout.

Speaking of Freeman, he’s so good at capturing both the blundering blandness and unyielding human-ness of the character that I can’t think of anyone else of this generation playing the role. This is true with everyone else here, as well; the cast lines up like a fanboy’s dream, everyone fitting perfectly into characters that have been around for decades, making them look like they’ve been the only ones to ever possibly fill the roles. (Some of them even out-do the cast of the 1980s TV miniseries, which had the perfect cast of the previous generation.)

And while this new “Hitchhiker’s” does play like a fanboy’s dream (keep an eye out for a slew of references to “Hitchhiker’s” incarnations of the past), and while it’s obvious that fans already familiar with Adams’ work will enjoy the movie far more than those without prior knowledge (helps fill in the gaps left by a plot too rapid to catch in one sitting), it still works splendidly for veteran and newbie alike. The script (from Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick) is an overload of jokes both silly and brainy, attacking you at lightning speed, and director Garth Jennings handles the whiplash approach effortlessly. If you can’t keep up, the movie seems to tell us, you can always come back and see it again.

Don’t Panic, indeed.

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