I have a kind of love-hate relationship with this film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and no, my feelings about it aren’t grounded in any special fondness for the source material, since I only heard a couple episodes of the radio series and saw a few minutes of the BBC-TV film, and never read the books.
My problem is based more on my desire to like a film that dares to be outside the realm of mainstream Hollywood product, which this one clearly does. Yet the movie tends to get in the way of that desire, or at least I think it does. When I first saw it last Thursday night, my reaction was that it was mildly amusing. Seeing bits and pieces of it again — and getting further away from it — I’m inclined to think it’s better than just mildly amusing, but that the film still misses being really successful.
Maybe Hitchhiker’s just tries too hard. Or perhaps it lacks the edge it would have had if it had been made 20 years ago, when its satire would have seemed fresher. The odd thing is that the satire hasn’t lost its relevance — far from it. If anything, the film’s snipes at humanity’s conceit that humans are the end-all, be-all of creation, its mocking tone concerning religion, and its depiction of an idiot president of the galaxy (“I discovered you could only be president if you had half a brain”) who signs an order for the destruction of the Earth when he thinks he’s responding to a request for an autograph, are even more relevant now.
But as presented in the film, these barbs seem a bit toothless. They feel less like subversive potshots than harmless squibs. The upshot is a kind of amused resignation to the mess that surrounds us, without any actual outrage. And satire without outrage — or at least anger — is a little beside the point.
Of course, that resigned attitude was part and parcel of writer Douglas Adams’ original concept. It’s just that the concept itself now seems almost quaint, and its genial good humor somehow out of place. That doesn’t make the film bad, it just makes it into a kind of wayward period piece — a strange position for a sci-fi film to be in.
For those who are completely out of the loop, the story involves Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, Shaun of the Dead), who is whisked away by his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def, The Italian Job), seconds before the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Turns out that Ford is actually an alien making his way through the universe with the aid of “the best-selling book of the great Ursa Major Publishing Company, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and he’s hitchhiked them out of harm’s way. This is where the adventure starts.
It’s a great springboard, but to where? In terms of story, it doesn’t go anywhere you haven’t been before. The charms and delights of the film lie in the details of that adventure and the universe in which it takes place. We may leave earth, but we certainly haven’t left bureaucracy behind. If anything, it’s even worse as practiced by the Vogons. (All of this would seem fresher if it hadn’t been previously done onscreen, in slightly modified fashion, as a depiction of the hereafter in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.) Nor have we left any of the peculiarities of Earth. They’ve just been transformed into forms that make them look rather foolish — for example, a religion that works on the belief that the universe was sneezed into existence and therefore substitutes “Achoo” for “Amen.”
These elements — along with casual absurdities like a dolphin production number, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” — keep the film afloat, even if it never seems terribly consequential. The deliberately cult-movie cast also helps, especially Alan Rickman as the voice of the clinically depressed robot, Marvin, and Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast (“I told you my name didn’t matter”). Martin Freeman makes a perfect hero for the tone of the story, while Mos Def is an excellent Ford Prefect, and Zooey Deschanel is as good as she always is. Sam Rockwell is perhaps a bit much as President Zaphod Beeblebrox, but since the character spends most of the movie relying on a “lemon juice-powered brain,” perhaps that’s understandable.
This all adds up to a movie that’s very easy to like, but somehow not so easy to love — no matter how hard you try. Rated PG for thematic elements, action and mild language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke