After so much heavy anticipation by fans, many will be surprised to know that it’s really only the newcomers to the “Hitchhiker’s” universe that will get much enjoyment out of the long awaited big screen adaptation of this famous piece of science-fiction comedy. The late great work by Douglas Adams has appeared in so many different formats and ways over the years, the vernacular having imbedded itself in international mainstream culture over the past three decades (well certainly in Commonwealth countries anyway), that the witty prose has ultimately been played out to death.
As a result the big budget US movie version of the tale feels much like what would happen if some up and coming new director tried to remake the Monty Python movies – all the great lines are there and the production values are much slicker, but the film itself and the abundant giddy energy the story once had is gone leaving something as cold and sterile as a museum. Those unfamiliar with the characters and situations may find it a light-hearted family-friendly ride but those who know better will, whilst happy that a lot of material from the books is used, will be disheartened by the sheer lack of fun the books generated.
Indeed that was Adams’ greatest gift. At the time it came out and throughout the 70’s & 80’s when they were hugely popular, the idea of science fiction combined with comedy was never really considered (this was many years before the likes of “Red Dwarf” or “Men in Black”). What’s more, what made them such a mainstream success was that they were hilarious – there was some semblance of a plot but for the most part it was smart and irreverent digressions on cricket, dating, computers, pretty much everything about British society at the time. Adams’ gifted prose was able to make space not a place of far out fantasy that turns off many people, but rather like our world – full of bureaucrats, loafers, drunks, bums and selfish jerks. Characters who could get away with lines like “If there’s anything more important than my ego, I want it caught and shot now”.
That’s what seems to have been forgotten in the movie. Many of the concepts from the books are spewed out onto the screen and quickly explained in a way that’s neither satisfying to the newcomer or the long-time fan. There’s a rush to churn out many of the book’s great scenes but all of it is done like the filmmakers have followed a road map rather than actually digested the material. In many ways it’s the exact same problem that plagued the first two “Harry Potter” movies – more attention was made to adapt specific events in the book rather than the spirit of it. Unlike those though, this one is more than happy to make a few changes.
The cast is somewhat ordinary with Bill Nighy’s small part as Slartiblartfast and Stephen Fry’s monologues as The Guide being the only two performances of real note. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman are completely wasted in their voice work, Martin Freeman essentially just wanders around with little in the way of interest on his part or ours, and the less said about the surprisingly flat Zoey Deschanel the better. Attempts are made to expand on those last two characters and the romance angle but none of it works.
Most of the weight of the film is therefore left on both Mos Def and Sam Rockwell’s shoulders, two great proven actors who seem to play their roles completely differently to the way they should’ve been. Def struggles to show off Ford’s easy going charm, whilst the always interesting Rockwell goes over the top manic silly to play a guy who should be the universe’s coolest cat. Add to this voice roles for the likes of Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren that sadly seem to waste their talent and you begin to get the picture. Rockwell and Freeman do have their moments though and had they been given better directions one wonders what might have been.
So what did work? The visual effects are pretty solid for the most part – especially the space and alien ship shots. There’s a lean towards practical old school style effects mixed with CGI which, much like with “Doctor Who”, fits perfectly with the film’s 70s/80s British sensibilities. Whilst there’s no real laugh out loud laughs there’s certainly a few chuckles here and there when everything comes together and plays off Adams work exactly as it should.
The opening sequence involving twirling dolphins and an annoyingly catchy song is a great idea, and a lot of the production values and looks ranging from the Vogons to Deep Thought do look like what you’d expect. Simon Jones has a fun cameo and there’s clever homages to the old TV series and Adams himself. Finally, the ‘Earth 2.0’ tour sequence is excellent – a combination of effects, Nighy’s performance and a few cute visual gags.
Still, a lot of the blame for the overall cock-up fairly goes on the shoulders of Director Garth Jennings & Writer Karey Kirkpatrick. The first-time director tries his best but this is tough material for even a master to handle let alone a newcomer. As a result the book’s fitful pacing issues are magnified tenfold on screen.
On the one hand the studio should be commended that as much of the book stayed as intact as it has onscreen but as I said before, in getting the details right the bigger picture has been lost. Ardent fans will either be grumpily unhappy or vaguely satisfied with the flat but ‘nowhere near as bad as it could’ve been’ result, newcomers should get quite a few smiles from the vintage material that may seem fresh to them but a few will be left scratching their heads. As films go though, this is mostly harmless.