Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Sometimes when reading a particularly enjoyable series of books you can almost see it as a movie in your mind. You may even hope that someday a film will actually be made from the books. At its best you wind up with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, when it misses the mark you get The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy, its not that this is a particularly bad film, it just relies far too much on special effects, eclipsing the wonderful dry British humor found in the books by Douglas Adams. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a regular guy; he has a mundane job and likes to lift a pint or three at the local pub. He has recently discovered that the government is going to tear down his house to make way for a highway bypass. One day he is approached by a friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) who reveals to him a couple of startling facts, Ford is actually an alien researching a series of inter-galactic guides for hitchhikers and that the earth is about to destroyed to make way for an interplanetary highway. The parallel between the local and the galactic is typical of Adamís book and runs through the story. Ford wants to save his friend and uses a special ring that permits the pair to hitch a ride on a passing space ship. The ship they enter is populated by a race called the Vogons, a really nasty looking species who is responsible for most of the galaxyís bureaucracy. The most deadly aspect of the Vogonís is their poetry, it is so tedious and bad that most sentient creatures will slip into a coma if forced to listen to it. The hitchhikerís guide that Ford works on is an electronic encyclopedia that contains facts on just about every subject in the universe. On its cover are emblazed the simple motto ĎDonít Panicí, advice that Arthur finds increasingly difficult to follow. Once on the Vogon ship the wayward pair soon met up with a strange group including outlawed president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) , a beautiful young human woman Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), and Marvin the Paranoid Android (voiced by Alan Rickman). The engage on a quest to discover the ultimate question whose answer is 42 reportedly found on the planet Magrathea.
Part of what I found disconcerting about this film is I have such found memories of the books and the BBC mini series from 1981. They where filled with such incredible whimsy that the modern special effects, while great, seemed to have detracted from the story. The cheesy effects used in the BBC series where, by modern standards, awful but they where fun and actually inline with the Adams books. To be fair, the books where so incredibly dense in its humor that it would be almost impossible to accurately bring this to the screen. The film may fail to meet expectations because those expectations of the die hard fans are so incredibly high. I canít help but to compare this on some level to the aforementioned Lord of the Rings. While both where translated from popular novels and both made use of special effects in the films Lord or the Rings used those effects to create a world for the story while in Guide the effects tended to overwhelm. The film takes itself far too seriously; it should have been a camp ride of imagination instead of trying to use the effects to challenge the plethora of modern space flicks. Those not familiar with the books will enjoy this film a lot more. Sure, many of the little in jokes will cause a little laugh with the faithful but I found myself laughing in a lot of the wrong places.
One thing that was done right here was the casting; it is as close to perfect as possible. Martin Freeman is a seasoned veteran of British subtle humor with credits such as the BBC version of the Office and Shaun of the Dead on his resume. He plays Arthur as a bit nerdy everyman but one with a good heart. He is glad to be alive and survive the destruction of his home world but finds himself often at the point of being overwhelmed by his new life. Mos Def is a solid, working actor with a lot of talent. He plays Ford as the counterpoint to Arthur. To Ford the bizarre is nothing special, he has seen just about everything in his work for the guide and appears to enjoy being the intergalactic mentor to his earthling friend. Zooey Deschanel is, as always, a delight to watch. She has a bubbly personality that gives Trillian a lot of personality. As the female lead in this wacky flick she manages to help the story along instead of just serving as eye candy. Sam Rockwell as Beeblebrox is fun to watch. He presents his character as a somewhat stoned president, a man used to authority but misdirected off course by the more enjoyable things in life. Alan Rickman is the kind of actor that can make the most of any part he takes on. His distinctive voice gives life to the emotionally disturbed Marvin the android.
Garth Jennings is just one of the many music video directors that have decided to foray into the world of feature length films. He is without a doubt talented but makes the mistake that many of his peers make; there is a big difference between a four minute video and a two hour film. His pacing is a bit too abrupt; there is a lack of flow from scene to scene. He depends too much on style instead of substance giving the audience something great to look at without the dry humor of the original material. While this works to a better degree in a video it cannot hold the audience for the duration of the flick. The style here is something great to see, every shot is packed with little details that truly set the stage. A lot of what fell short here is the writing just didnít convey the satire found in the books. Itís like eating a rice cake, sure it will fill you up but there is little taste.
Buena Vista did a good job of bringing the film to DVD. There are both Pan & Scan and anamorphic versions of the film but it takes the full, original aspect ratio to fully appreciate the stylistic vision of the film. There is an excellent color palette to the video; the colors are vibrant and true. There are no distortions even in scenes where there is a stark contrast of light and dark. The Dolby 5.1 audio is marvelous. Every little effect that the Foley artist conceived is audible. The rear speakers are used for more than just ambience often being used to depict movement of the characters. The sub woofer is used often and with excellent results. If you are a fan of Douglas Adams you know that you are going to get this no mater what anyone says, its like pizza, even if its not particularly good its still pizza. For the younger viewer, one not aware of the numerous incarnation of this work, it will be a fun ride.