A film review by Craig J. Koban



2005, PG-13, 85 mins.

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

Directed by Garth Jennings /  Screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick / Based on the book by Adams

First and foremost, I am going to state one thing about THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY – I am largely a virgin to the original “trilogy” of five books by Douglas Adams that this new film version is based on. 

I say this with the right level of foresight and frankness, as I do not, in any way, feel like being flooded with emails by a largely pervasive and obsessive fan base for these books that I will most likely offend in some way or another.  So, for any of you that feel, after reading this review, that I simply “don’t get” or “understand” this film and what it’s trying to be…well…you are both entitled to your opinion and you just may be right.  HITCHHIKER has such a cult following that I felt like I had to be a member of one in order to comprehend what this film is trying to accomplish.  However, I have always maintained that not reading the source material before seeing a film adaptation is a good thing, as it does not taint one’s perspective on the film effort.  My objectivity about this film, in hindsight, should never be in question, as I never once nitpicked over any pertinent details that I felt were carelessly omitted. 

Having said that, I in no way can chiefly comment on whether this new film version of HITCHHIKER is a flawless and cogent adaptation of the source material.  If you are a fan of the books and want to know this, then my review is the wrong place to come to.  However, if you want an opinion from one on the “outside” who has seen the film and now feels that he has the perseverance to look at the film and film alone critically, then you are unquestionably in the right place! 

However, I have done a modest amount of research into this film and books in order to not sound like completely ignorant  while discussing it in any discernable detail.  As a matter of fact, HITCHHIKER is a film that has been about twenty some odd years in the development stages alone.  According to the IMDB, HITCHHIKER has its roots on radio, which was subsequently adapted into book form and the further BBC television series.  Douglas Adams, apparently, always wanted to make a big screen adaptation and do his work serious justice.  Ivan Reitman, two years before he made GHOSTBUSTERS, optioned the book in 1982 with thoughts of directing it, and Adams himself wrote several drafts of the screenplay (future ghost seekers Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray were once slated to star).  Then the film lamented in developmental hell until it seemed, near Adams’ death, that Austin Powers director Jay Roach was set to direct with Jim Carrey starring.  Roach passed on the project, who subsequently passed it on to friend and fellow director Spike Jonze who eventually gave the film over to Garth Jennings, a former music video director who makes his debut with HITCHHIKER.  When all is said and done, this 2005 adaptation is the eighth version of the work (it has been a radio series, a record album, a novel, a television series, a computer game, a stage show, and a comic book). 

To be fair to this film, the producers have pained to tell loyal fans that this film is not a “literal translation” of the books, which sounds as innocuous as saying that the original five books constitute a “trilogy”.  Yes, Adams himself wrote the screenplay and several key characters and plots were omitted and some were created for the film entirely (one character played by John Malkovich) is a new persona in this adaptation.  After Adams’ death, however, another writer, Karey Kirkpatrick, was brought on to give the draft a polish job.  Some have commented that it’s a sad shame that Adams was not able to see the fruits of his labour.  I guess, after seeing the final product on screen, that maybe it was a good thing.  

HITCHHIKER will no doubt please most casual and diehard fans of the original works, but to all other outsiders, this film is largely a comic mess, a film that meanders around all over the narrative map in search of a cohesive story to tell, or maybe even a point.  Yes, this film exists, much like a comedy like MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, to be admired for its comic energy, mood, and tone.  Yet, HITCHHIKER is more inconsistent with its laughs and when it scores a few genuine chuckles it tries awfully hard (and fails) to generate other big laughs.  This is one of the most self-referential films I have ever seen, one in which you just feel that all involved think they are being hilarious when they are really coming across as pushy.  The film is quirky, wacky, crazy, and free-spirited to the point of insanity, but it's also aimless, enormously disorganized, and comes across more as a haphazard series of comic skits than a feature film comedy.  When all is said and done, HITCHHIKER tries to be just too much which makes the whole enterprise surprisingly banal and tiresome.  This film is a boring mixture of big-budget sci-fi spectacle, new age philosophy and existentialist thought, social and political satire, and just sheer and unbridled absurdity.  It’s perfectly fine for a comedy to be weird and offbeat, but it should always inspire dependable laughs first and stupefied reactions second.  I spent more times in HITCHHIKER just trying to make sense of everything and not laughing enough. 

The film does start on humorous ground, though.  It opens on Earth in merry ol’ England where mild-mannered nobody Arthur Dent (perfectly cast Martin Freeman, who was still much more funny and subdued in BBC's THE OFFICE) is having a really, really bad morning.  When he wakes up he discovers that a bunch of bulldozers have arrived to completely flatten his house so that an expressway can be built through it.  By the time noon rolls around he has discovered something even worse: an old friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) reveals that he is an alien from another planet and that a nasty and cruel race of aliens – the Vogons – are about to completely destroy the Earth in order to make their own hyperspace routes easier to travel through.  Well, at least the Vogons were polite enough to send humanity a polite message of their upcoming destruction ("People of Earth...you have been scheduled for demolition...have a nice day"). 

Needless to say, Arthur not only sees his house destroyed, but also his home planet as well (talk about your Monday morning blahs on Thursdays!).  However, both he and Ford do manage to escape Earth right before its destruction and hitch a ride aboard a massive Vogon vessel.  While in their custody the Vogons come across as sort of nice and congenial, that is until they tie up the two and start reading them poetry, which has been known to drive people insane.  The Vogons are wonderfully realized animatronic creations that come across as giant Kermit the Frogs after a nasty dosage of gamma rays. 

Needless to say, the two do manage to get off of the Vogon ship and get aboard another ship –The Heart of Gold – commanded by the galaxy’s President, Zaphod Beeblebrox (first rule of desperate comedy is that funny sounding names are not funny).  Sam Rockwell plays Zaphod like he just went on an all night binge of coffee and caffeine pills with equal parts speed.  If his energy is not manic enough, his appearance most surly is.  Zaphod has a third arm that sort of pops out of his torso like a Swiss Army knife and has another side to him that is a bit more literal than is figuratively.  Also on board the ship is the film's obligatorical love interest, another earthling named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and an android named Marvin (body provided by Willow himself, Warwick Davis and voiced by Alan Rickman).  They also meet up with the character played by John Malkovich, who has no lower body below his waist…oh wait…it’s made up of several fine and spidery mechanical legs. 

There’s not much more dissecting of the film’s plot that I can engage in because, quite frankly, there is not much of an engaging plot to talk about.  HITCHHIKER, to all of its purists, is not a story driven film to be sure, but the film is so unfocused.  As a comic romp it goes all over the place from one unrelated moment to the next and is intercut with some would-be hilarious animated bits with droll voice-over narration, all which leads to a conclusion that gives anti-climatic a whole new meaning.  The film sort of plays like a polluted hybrid of BRAZIL, MONTY PYTHON, and STAR TREK mixed with some dry British satire.  The film’s main underpinning is that it's just way too inconsistent with its laughs.  There are some moments that inspire some genuine giggles whereas they are many others that inspire uneven, if not incredulous, reactions.  Some key moments seem to superficially get the quirky humor of Adams’s books, where other scenes seem forced down our throats begging us for a laugh. 

HITCHHIKER is almost arrogant in its approach to comedy; it seems to revel in a sort of self-indulgent glow that it’s painfully funny all of the time.  I have always had a fondness for British comedy in the sense that they never seem to push or work overly hard for a laugh when a more subtle and lighter approach to getting a reaction works better.  HITCHHIKER is a film that desperately cries out to be loved and laughed at.  In the end, I just had no real investment in it at all.  I neither loved nor laughed at or with it.  Many have commented on how this film is like a brother to the MONTY PYTHON universe.  Try distant second cousin many times removed. 

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is a comedy that I so feverously wanted to like, but the more I invested in it the more I wanted out of it.   It does have a few admirable qualities (energy and persistent energy at that, first rate production values, and an overall enthusiasm by all of the participants) but the film is so overwhelmingly negligible in terms of its disjointed laughs and messed up and inconsistent comic tone.  Moreover, the film just felt so arbitrary – the events in it never really build to anything meaningful that you really care about.  Instead, we get a series of incoherent and unfunny comic vignettes that are loosely strung together to create a framework that is so weak that it just can’t hold a film together.  Maybe even more significant is the fact that the film is just not that funny when all is said and done.  It kind of works like a cult film the same way THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW does - its legions of fans will rejoice in its audacity and and tone, whereas the lay, casual viewer will most likely respond with puzzlement and boredom.  To me, a "lay" person to Adams' creation, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY just seems  lost in space and I for one could not wait to time warp out of the theatre.

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