Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For those who are fans of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's five-book "trilogy," I have two words of advice: Don't Panic! The 2005 film version of the book isn't nearly as bad as many Hitchhiker's lovers have feared. Of course, it's also not as good as it could have been. For the most part, this big-screen re-telling of Adams' inaugural book plays it safe, offers some solid performances and nice special effects, and provides some chuckles along the way. "Definitive," this isn't. But it will do in a pinch.

The fundamental problem with crafting a cinematic adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that the book is primarily about tone. Plot and character come in a distant second. Reading the book, you get a sense that Adams is talking directly to you. The chief pleasure of immersing oneself in his peculiar universe isn't to see how the story ends, but to experience all of the detours along the way. For the most part, such nuances get lost in the movie, and the result is that, while we spend some time with familiar characters in recognizable circumstances, there's a hollowness to the proceedings that no amount of CGI effects and plot padding can cover up.

The movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been in the works for more than twenty years. The characters and story got their beginnings on radio. Next came the books and a BBC television series. But Adams always wanted to take this to the big screen. Through the '80s and the '90s, he wrote a number of screenplay drafts. His latest, which was revised and "polished" by Karey Kirkpatrick after his 2001 death, became the basis for this production. It's unfortunate that Adams, to whom the movie is dedicated, didn't live long enough to see the final fruit of his labor.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy opens on Earth, in England. Mild-mannered Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is having a bad Thursday. He awakens in the morning to discover that bulldozers have arrived to flatten his house so that an expressway bypass can be built. By lunch, he has learned that his good friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is an alien and Earth is about to be destroyed by a nasty group of creatures called the Vogons. At Ford's side, Arthur soon finds himself on an intergalactic odyssey in the company of the President of the Galaxy, a two-headed egomaniac named Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell); Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), the last surviving Earth woman; and a depressed robot named Marvin (voice of Alan Rickman).

It's hard to give away the plot of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, since it's fairly minimal. The movie features a lot of running around leading up to an anticlimactic ending. If you're here looking for science fiction adventure of the formulaic kind, you are attending the wrong movie. The comedic elements are uneven. Sometimes it's funny; sometimes it misses the mark. At least the filmmakers try to imbue the film with as much of Adams' quirky humor as possible. The excerpts from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which pepper the production, are lifted word-for-word from the book, and Stephen Fry's delivery is letter-perfect.

In order to pad the movie out to a reasonable length (rather than having it end after 70 minutes), a middle act has been added that was not in any of the previous incarnations. It features a meeting with a prominent galactic preacher, Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), and a visit to the Vogon home world. The ending also differs from the book, and there's a lightweight romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian. All of these things originated in Adams' screenplay; it isn't a case of another writer mucking around with his work posthumously.

Perhaps the most significant character-based deviation from the book is the decision to develop a romance between Arthur and Trillian. In principal, I think it's a good idea, but it isn't well handled. If the filmmakers wanted to do this, why not invest a little more emotion in it? There's a wonderful scene in which Trillian laments the possibility of having lost Arthur – if the rest of their interaction had been this good, the love story might have seemed less awkward. Much as I wanted to believe in these two lost souls as having mutually found "the one" in outer space, it never really works.

The director is Garth Jennings, making his feature debut after graduating from music videos. (He apparently got the job on the recommendation of Spike Jonze, who was briefly attached to the film during the latter portion of its long and colorful history.) Jennings may have had some difficulty capturing the subtler nuances of Adams' writing, but he has no trouble underscoring the obvious social satire. There were times when this film reminded me of Brazil.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy boasts a strong ensemble of performances. Martin Freeman is the perfect choice for an ordinary, unheroic Earth guy. Sam Rockwell is annoying - at times bordering on unbearable - as Zaphod, but that's kind of the point. Zooey Deschanel, who deserves to be better-known that she is, is beguiling as Trillian. And Mos Def seems to have been born to play Ford Prefect. Voice work by Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, and Helen Mirren (as Deep Thought) is superlative. And, for fans of the story's earlier incarnations, the original Arthur Dent, Simon Jones, has a cameo.

There's certainly something of Adams in this version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although perhaps not enough to make it an unqualified success. Maybe there was a concern that making it too offbeat would create accessibility problems for those unfamiliar with the books or the radio series. Or maybe it's not inherently cinematic enough. Whatever the case, although I never doubted that I was watching The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, something was missing. That something is Adams' distinct voice, which only speaks loudly enough to be heard on a few occasions. So don't panic, but don't applaud, either.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1