The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Film review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), directed by Garth Jennings

h2g2filmThis film was on TV recently, and I caught a bit of it, which made me dig out the DVD. It made me realise that I probably haven’t seen the whole film since we saw it at the cinema (armed with towels, a bag of peanuts that curiously cost 42p, and a very old palm type computer with a note taped to the back saying “DON’T PANIC”).

And I can see why.

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) lives somewhere rural in England. One morning, the council wants to demolish his house to make way for a bypass, because “you’ve got to build bypasses”. Fortunately (?), his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) shows up in the nick of time to tell him the world’s about to end, so never mind about a stupid house.

And, true, a fleet of Vogon constructor ships appear – and Ford brings Arthur on board, hitching a ride. To think Ford is a researcher for the remarkable electronic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by Stephen Fry), and that he isn’t from Guildford after all.

Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz (voiced by Richard Griffiths, a.k.a. Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films) shows no mercy when it comes to the Earth – it has to be demolished to give way to a new hyperspace bypass, oh the irony – or to hitchhikers. There’s poetry involved in the latter.

Improbable though it is, the two hitchhikers are picked up in the nick of time by a passing spaceship, inhabited by galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, and I’ll be cross if I find this re-posted again on a Zooey Deschanel fanblog without so much as a reference back to the blog where it originated, i.e. The Squeee) – a girl Arthur once met a party and completely failed to score with, and a depressed robot called Marvin (Warwick Davis in a body suit, voiced by Alan Rickman).

Zaphod wants to go to the legendary planet of Magrathea, but first, they need to have a run-in with the guy he beat in the presidential election (John Malkovich), and have Zaphod’s vice president (Anna Chancellor) following him with a bureaucratic army of Vogons, because the president has been kidnapped. By himself.

Also featuring Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, the voice of Helen Mirren as Deep Thought, the voice of Bill Bailey as a very surprised whale, and people from British comedy show The League of Gentlemen as various Vogon voices – and Mr. Prosser. Particularly liked how they got Simon Jones, Arthur in the old radio and TV version, to cameo as the Magrathean warning system, as well as Marvin (the body suit), who can be seen queuing up on Vogsphere.

There are some nice nods to descriptions in the books, like how a Vogon’s nostrils are above their eyebrows, the jewel-encrusted crabs on Vogsphere and the beautiful deer that the Vogons like to sit on. Aside from that, holy crap what a mess this film is! I must have blanked that part out completely.

When the film first came out, I had read a thorough review posted by the owner of a fansite, which contained so many spoilers that when I saw the film, I took all the unexpected changes in my stride and just enjoyed the ride. There was nothing to get upset about, because I was already aware of everything that I could possibly deem “wrong”. And, it has to be said, every incarnation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is different from its predecessor, like it’s a great big work in progress. If you see it as that, you’ll be fine (mostly), but if you go into it expecting it to be anything like the book, or the original radio series, or even the old TV series, you’re going to be crushingly disappointed.

Yes, they’ve done things very differently. Trillian wouldn’t be famed in the States for her British accent, because she doesn’t have one – it’s American. (Thankfully, her voice is pleasant to listen to, unlike Trillian of the TV series.) She does look a bit like I would probably picture Trillian, though. Ford isn’t a peculiar-looking redhead, he’s African American. Don’t really mind that much either, to be honest. Martin Freeman as Arthur works very well, although he comes across as more tired than indignant.

The look of Marvin … well, they got the triangular eyes right, even if the colour’s wrong. The resigned body language is brilliant, so kudos to Warwick Davis … I’m just not sure about the voice. As much as I love Alan Rickman and think he’s brilliant whatever he does, I think his Marvin is more sarcastic and bitter than depressed, which is disappointing.

On the plus side, Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod is pretty much perfect, just the right amount of cheese. The two heads thing, which was just a throwaway gag that worked on radio, has an entirely new approach that feels contrived and silly. With the CGI nowadays (and when the film was made), there would have been no problem CGI:ing in a second head (the old TV version had to use a robotic head that kept running out of power), but instead, they have it sort of … hidden in his throat? And he can whip it out for comedic effect. The third arm we only see in passing in one scene. On the other hand, the portrayal of Zaphod is brilliant. Just so, Rockwell; just so.

The script was originally penned by Douglas Adams, but as he sadly passed away in 2001, it was finished by someone else. This has caused a lot of fans to blame the new guy for everything that goes against previous incarnations of the story. Even though those changes were actually written by Douglas Adams himself! Don’t remember exactly which parts in particular, but I think the whole Arthur/Trillian love story was one of them. That love story just feels odd. They were the last two humans from Earth, but that doesn’t mean they’re compatible …

The Humma Kavula side story is bizarre but genial in its own way. The sermon of the Great White Handkerchief is hilarious if you see it as a parody of organised religion, which I do, considering Douglas Adams was a “militant” Atheist. He preferred to put it like that so that people would be sure not to misinterpret him as an agnostic. (The Book’s description of how the Babelfish came to be is a deleted scene on the DVD – gee, I wonder why?)

But anyway, plot-wise it just feels all over the place. Sure, this can be said for previous incarnations as well, I suppose, but here things are changed around that it makes even less sense than usual. And for me, part of the charm goes with it. Not to say that it’s not funny, quirky and a very well made film, because it is. They even opted for Jim Henson’s creature shop works for the Vogons instead of just CGI, which I applaud them for. Looks much more realistic. Just compare Yoda of original trilogy (puppet) vs prequel trilogy (CGI) of Star Wars, and you’ll know what I mean.

Maybe if they had gone for a straight adaptation of the book, or even the radio series, it would have worked better. As it is, they did their best and everything, but the film is so all over the place that it just feels bizarre and cobbled together. And that’s not as brilliant as the story was originally written.

Some family members of Douglas Adams make cameos too, as extras. I like that. I also like that his image is shown at the very end, when the Improbability Drive is engaged. It’s so touching it nearly brings me to tears. And the fact that this film stands as a tribute to a great man and his work … well, as a fan, I can’t help but to appreciate it. This is what he was working on when he died, and while the result leaves a lot to desire, it’s still Hitchhiker’s, you know?

2.5 out of 5 towels, and that being said, Happy Towel Day!!


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