"So long, and thanks for all the fish."
To fans of the late Douglas Adams, it must have seemed like dolphins would take over the Earth before his comic sci-fi novels ever reached the big screen. Waiting so long, it must also have been an bigger disappointment when the wry brand of Adams whimsy didn't quite make the translation from page to picture.
For all its huge sets, high-tech glitz, and CGI effects, the 2005 release of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" fails to capture the deadpan drollness of the Adams novels, and this despite Adams himself having had a hand in the writing of the screenplay some twenty years earlier. The more one thinks about it, the more one comes to realize that it may have been because of the huge sets, the high-tech glitz, and the CGI effects that the simplicity of the Adams wit fizzled.
Not that the film is a complete failure; far from it. Indeed, there are many occasions in the film to make one smile; maybe enough moments to make the film a worthwhile viewing experience for the whole family. Certainly, there are more amusing moments in "Hitchhiker" than in most Hollywood comedies, whether said comedies are suitable for the family or not. It's just that most of us who read the Adams books expected something more. I'm not sure exactly what, just more.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is all over the map when it comes to humor. Some of it is dry and subtle in a typically English manner; some of it is silly and slapstick; some of it is frenetic and cartoony; some of it is outright dumb; and some of it is deadly dull. The Wife-O-Meter, a fan of British television comedy, found the film much less to her liking than I did and became bored about a third of the way in. She thought most of it was corny and dated. Perhaps I was giving the film too much benefit of the doubt while watching it, good-naturedly going along with the gags, hoping everything was going to improve in time. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't improve, and, in fact, it tends drag toward the end. Yet, as I say, I smiled enough times to make it through to the finish without feeling too uncomfortable.
Still, the film is curiously unsatisfying.
Since writing the first of his "Hitchhiker" novels in the early eighties, Adams's creations have been adapted for radio, television, stage, comic books, even a computer game. Because the story idea was always rather open-ended, it was ready-made for such episodic media. The plot involves a common, ordinary Englishman, Arthur Dent, discovering that a group of galactic bureaucrats is about destroy the world to make room for a hyperspace expressway. Luckily for him, his best friend, Ford Prefect, just happens to be a space alien (a fact hitherto unknown to hapless Arthur) who whisks him off the planet before it's obliterated. From there, Arthur and Ford travel the galaxy in zany adventures that Adams appears to have been making up as he went along. The novels, and the movie, run like an old Monty Python television show, which isn't hard to understand when you consider that Adams once said he wanted to be John Cleese, if the job weren't already taken.
Anyway, we've got a hit-and-miss affair in "Hitchhiker." One of the hits is the star, Martin Freeman, as the everyday Arthur Dent. Viewers may recognize him from the 2001 BBC television series "The Office" or from past movie appearances in "Love Actually" and "Shaun of the Dead." He is not a big star with a lot of star appeal, but he does fit the role nicely and responds to the part accordingly. Mostly, he gets laughs by reacting to the absurdly gigantic situations around him: the Earth exploding, planets in the making, that sort of thing. He is you or me, the ideal Everyman, whose best quip comes when he's faced with standing in a long line: "Leave this to me. I'm British; I know how to queue."
Zooey Deschanel as the Earth girl Trillion, Arthur's quasi love interest in the movie, is also quite fetching, but she doesn't have much to do beyond looking helpless on occasion and confused about whom she owes her allegiance to. I found her to radiate a charm that was hard to resist, and apparently so does Arthur, although he's generally too hesitant to make any moves.
More problematical are some of the supporting players. Hip-hop artist Mos Def plays Arthur's friend Ford Prefect (named by Adams after the English car, a car not well known in America). Def is surprisingly better than you might think, but he's not quite the Ford Prefect I had always imagined from the books. The fact that Def is black has little to do with it; rather, it's that he's not ironic enough. Early on I had heard that Bill Murray was a candidate for the part, and as Murray's comic style and persona have grown ever more minimalist over the years, he would have been perfect as Prefect. But, alas, I'm sure the movie's $50,000,000 budget would not have allowed for it, nor do I think Murray would have accepted a role as second banana. Let's just say Def is no Murray.
Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the conceited idiot President of the Galaxy, looks like he's from another picture entirely, more absurd than funny. He appears to be patterned after Michael Keaton's character in "Beetlejuice" (hence the name) but to less amusing effect. Likewise, Zaphod's rival, John Malkovich's Humma Kavula, is more bizarre than amusing. Malkovich does have one good, awe-inspiring scene in which he reveals himself as not quite all there, literally, but other than that he's just kind of creepy.
Finally, there's everybody's favorite character from the books, Marvin, the paranoid, depressed, and largely bored robot ("Life...don't talk to me about life"). He's supposed to have a brain the size of a planet, which nobody ever asks him to use, an idea the filmmakers latch onto to create a short, cutesy-poo being whose head looks like a giant smiley face with sad, droopy, triangular eyes and obviously no smile. The filmmakers were no doubt influenced by Touchstone Pictures, meaning Disney, meaning cute. In the movie, Marvin is a cross between R2-D2 and C-3PO, small and cuddly but forever moaning and complaining. If you recall, Disney couldn't be restrained from creating a similarly precious little robot in "The Black Hole," effectively scuttling all hope of that venture being anything but a children's film. Warwick Davis is inside the robot suit, and Alan Rickman provides him a perfect voice; now, if the robot had only looked like Rickman, too, the character might have been more effective. Oh, well.
Despite my reservations about some of the casting and some of the wayward gags and the whole thing sagging by the end, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," as I've said, manages to win its share of smiles. Maybe that's all that counts in the long run of galactic timetables.
Here's the thing: Buena Vista transferred the movie to disc in anamorphic widescreen to THX specifications, yet it still doesn't look as good to me as it should. A check of the bit rate indicates that BV used more compression than they could have for optimum picture quality. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is rendered fairly closely at about 2.21:1, and there is very little noticeable grain. But while the image is bright enough, there is a soft, vague appearance to it, with darker areas looking somewhat murky, and more than a few moiré effects, shimmering lines and pixels. I would have preferred that Buena Vista had transferred the movie to DVD at the highest possible bit rate and left the bonus materials to a second disc. Maybe if we wait long enough, they will. Or not.
The audio fares much better than the video, coming to us in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 Surround. In DD 5.1, there are strong dynamics, a powerful impact, a robust bass, a pleasant musical ambiance, and plenty of rear-channel effects. Comedy or no, this is still a modern sci-fi flick, and it's important to the spectacle to have a soundtrack that does it justice. This one does. You'll hear spaceships, bulldozers, laser blasts, alien voices, and all sorts of strange and wonderful noises coming at you from all directions.
The major bonus items are a pair of audio commentaries, the first by director Garth Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith, and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy; the second by executive producer Robbie Stamp and a colleague of Douglas Adams, Sean Solle. Of the two commentaries, I thought Stamp and Solle's was the more interesting. They are less talkative than the other group, yet in their own way they're more entertaining, more intellectual, and more informative. It's less of the "Here's the logo" business and more of the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking, as well as more of a backstage look at the book, the author, and the author's themes.
In addition to the commentaries, there is an eight-minute featurette, "The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," wherein the director and stars praise everything about the movie; a brief additional entry from the "Hitchhiker's Guidebook"; three fake and two authentic deleted scenes that I couldn't tell apart; a Sing Along of "So Long and Thanks For All The Fish" where you follow the bouncing dolphin; and "Marvin's Hangman," a word game that uses Marvin the Robot as the central character. Marvin remarks upon your progress and loses appendages each time you miss a letter.
The extras conclude with twenty-four scene selections, plus a chapter insert; a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests; and Sneak Peeks at eight other Buena Vista titles. Along the way, the menu allows you to click on an "Improbability Drive" that directs you to goofy, seemingly random snippets from the film. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language options, with French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired
Viewers who appreciate low-key British humor will find an abundance of it in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy." But you'll have to suffer through a good deal of tomfoolery and not a few dead spots to find it. In the long run, the film is pretty tame; a little more daring might have been in order.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is...42.