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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy   B

Touchstone Pictures / Spyglass Entertainment

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Garth Jennings
Writers: Douglas Adams, Karey Kirkpatrick (based on the book by Adams)
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, John Malkovich, Warwick Davis, Steve Pemberton, Anna Chancellor, Helen Mirren.

Review by Rob Vaux

Watching The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is like being chatted up by an extremely witty ADD patient. It zips from one topic to another at a machine-gun pace, maintaining its narrative by the very thinnest of threads while unleashing a blizzard of stream-of-consciousness observations. As it washes over the audience, those unfamiliar with the property (book, radio play, what have you) may be in deep trouble. But those who relax -- who don't panic as the title text admonishes -- will find a fairly funny confection that does justice to creator Douglas Adams and his work.

That last part is probably most important to the hardcore fans, who know the material by heart and will be ready to pounce on any hiccups the movie version might produce. There are, indeed, a few divergences -- notably a screwball romance between hapless Englishman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and enterprising space-babe Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) -- but they're all in keeping with Adams' original spirit and feel right at home in his zany, off-kilter universe. To them, director Garth Jennings adds a bounty of perfectly realized concepts, from the rubbery Vogons who destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace express route to the megacomputer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren) who knows all the answers but can't quite hash out the question. They're strung together by animated interludes from the Hitchhiker's Guide itself: a computerized sourcebook, immaculately voiced by Stephen Fry and presenting animated monologues of some of Adams' best passages. It's enough to send all but the stodgiest fans into paroxysms of glee.

The feat is particularly impressive considering how well-worn so many of the gags have become. An audience that can repeat a joke verbatim is unlikely to be amused by it anew -- unless the timing and delivery are spot-on. Jennings and the cast are more than up to the challenge, and enliven some very old routines with their energy and enthusiasm. A few bits fall flat -- the Vogons' poetry recital for example -- but they're quickly swallowed by the sheer volume of those that hit the target right on the head. Adams has become such a cottage industry that it's hard to remember just how clever his work originally was. If nothing else, the movie version is a reminder of what brought so many people to the property in the first place.

The difficulty comes with those who haven't yet been exposed to it. The film's chaotic structure and limp narrative can be baffling to newbies, and the humor can come across as irritating if one is not in the properly loopy mindframe. Freeman makes a decent anchor, to be sure; his stodgy Dent -- rescued by best friend and secret alien researcher Ford Prefect (Mos Def) right before Earth's annihilation -- serves as a constantly flummoxed straight man to which the audience can relate. He's joined in his travels by Ford, fellow Earth exile Trillian, and Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), whose stoner rock god routine makes a good litmus test for the film as a whole (the funnier and less irritating you find him, the more likely you are to enjoy the ride). Yet even with this amusing quartet to follow, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has trouble keeping focused. Some of the movie's particulars aren't spelled out very well, most notably the Infinite Improbability Drive that powers Zaphod's spaceship. And it all comes at us in such a random, grab-baggy fashion that those who can't get in sync with it right away will find the experience exasperating.

On the other hand, that maybe unavoidable, since Adams' work was itself quite the grab bag. Losing a few viewers in the shuffle is nothing compared to the disaster that would have befallen the film had it not gotten the pitch and tone correct. Despite its changes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works well as an adaptation, reaping considerable rewards by understanding just what Adams was striving for. The only thing it truly lacks is the novel's streak of fatalism, which brought a dark edge to the otherwise daft absurdity. That may have been too much to ask however; capturing such exuberant essence is hard enough without adding existentialist woe into the bargain. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does well enough within its parameters and it wisely leaves the more ambitious material alone. A great film it's not, but in the "Dear God don't screw this up" department, it passes with flying colors.

Review published 04.28.2005.

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