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Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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I first read Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when I was 13 or so, shortly after the mass-market paperback release of “The Restuarant at the End of the Universe.” (I actually read “Restaurant” first, not realizing until I was well into it that it was a sequel; I went back and bought “Hitchhiker’s” within a couple of days of finishing “Restaurant.”) Thanks to some car difficulty on the way home from the mall, and the fact that “Restaurant” isn’t exactly an epic of Tolstoian scope, I actually finished the book before I even got it home. I subsequently read every novel Adams published as soon after he released them as I could get my hands on them.

But I don’t consider myself a die-hard Adams junkie, at least not anymore; I haven’t read any of the books in years. They’re pretty much fondly-remembered relics of my nerdy adolesence at this point. And given that I hadn’t read “Hitchhiker’s” in so long, I thought I’d be able to separate what the movie was trying to accomplish from what the book set out to do, to judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply judging how faithfully it aped its source material. But that proved more difficult that I’d anticipated–largely because of the flood of memories that came back to me during the movie. I hadn’t heard the phrase “Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal” for fifteen or twenty years but it was right back in the forefront of my head the instant before it was said in the movie. So in the end, despite my best critical intentions, I ended up judging the movie to at least some degree against what I remembered of the book.

In the end what I’ve decided to do is cheat and give The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy two grades, one that the thirteen-year-old me who loved the books so much would have given it, and one that the thirty-four-year old with the more developed critical faculties would give it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Grade: C-
Directed By: Garth Jennings
Written By: Douglas Adams Karey Kirkpatrick
Starring: Sam Rockwell Martin Freeman Mos Def Zooey Deschanel Bill Nighy John Malkovich Alan Rickman’s Voice
Studio: Disney

The overweight, greasy, introverted me of 1984 gives this movie a B-. The script (credited to Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, though I truly believe Kirkpatrick did most of the work) stays as true as it can to the original radio program, TV series and book–in fact, it lifts great chunks of the narration and dialogue straight from the earlier works. And while Me-at-13 had always pictured Michael Palin as Arthur Dent and Eric Idle as Ford Prefect (is it any surprise I was into Monty Python, too?), I truly appreciated the casting of Martin Freeman as a note-perfect Arthur and managed to accept the overly-mannered Mos Def as Ford. They certainly fit as much of the book in as they could reasonably be expected to do, even if much it was just thrown out in passing or didn’t make much sense in the overall story. So yeah, Me-at-13 says, it was OK.

The not-so-overweight, much less greasy, still-introverted Me-at-34 can’t quite be as charitable: here’s where the official C- grade comes in. This movie is, quite frankly, an unholy mess. The direction feels amateurish (not completely a surprise since it was directed by a first-time feature director, Garth Jennings), the editing is sloppy, the sets look cheap, most especially the spaceship Heart of Gold (like they spent all of their budget on the Vogon Muppets), and the script, quite frankly, is only a couple of notches above mere transcript and also only a couple of notches above abysmal. I think that there might have been a good movie hidden somewhere in the intentions of the creators, but it got lost in trying too hard to mimic the all-too-familiar feel of Adams’ work. They managed to get the surface of Adams’ work right (or close to it, anyway) but not the heart.

I can’t bring myself to blame the actors, all of whom give it an enthusiastic effort and all of whom are capable of far better work than this movie might suggest. Me-at-34 and Me-at-13 both agree that Freeman perfectly embodies Arthur, the ever-at-a-loss Englishman ripped from a life of quiet sub-mediocrity into galaxy-spanning insanity. Sam Rockwell plays galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox like a two-headed, three-armed, long-haired Bill Clinton who did inhale, and far, far more than once. Mos Def forces his oddness more than I’d like, but he certainly has the “alien” part of Ford’s personality down. The normally-delightful Zooey Deschanel doesn’t do an awful lot as Trillian, though that’s not really her fault–Trillian’s part in this movie has been reduced mainly down to being “The Girl,” honestly. By far the best acting job in the movie goes to the always-great Bill Nighy’s small part as Slartibartfast, planetary designer; he fully seems to get the benign befuddledness of the character.

I’m going to leave my summing up for this movie to my boy -b, whose expectations were likewise set sufficiently low. He was able to condense his feelings about the movie perfectly into five little words:

“It was a great book.”

Written by Allen

May 1st, 2005 at 10:44 pm

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