Saturday, April 30, 2005

Movie Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Life, the universe and everything. Posted by Hello

So before we even start, let's just throw out there that the answer is 42. Always has been, always will be. But that's not the big mystery of Hitchhiker's Guide - the mystery is what is the question? How do you correctly phrase the question of life, the universe and everything?

And so we commence the voyage of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a favorite of my sister Ashley and mine since early childhood. Back when we were just little girls, we would look forward to Saturday mornings - not for Scooby Doo or Smurfs, but to watch Hitchhiker's Guide and Dr. Who on the local PBS channel. This strange choice of programming for two young girls may explain some things - once we stayed up all night together, hanging out on our window seat and waiting for Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo to come walking up our cul-de-sac, and why we thought this might happen I still do not know. In any case, we greeted the feature-length, modern-day version of Hitchhiker's Guide with great enthusiasm. In fact, I was so enthusiastic that I braved yesterday's snowy weather to go to the movie theatre at 1 p.m. and secure us tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show.

Ashley handled her enthusiasm by securing mini-bottles of Jamison’s to sneak into her Coke during the movie, and I have to say, she did seem a little more unbridled than usual, perhaps to the disgruntlement of those around us. But we both agreed that the movie does a perfect job of staying true to Douglas Adams' wonderful original (Adams' books are so original and hiliarious that he practically defines the term original), while deftly using today's technology (and the Muppets) to update it.

Brit Arthur Dent (The Office's Martin Freeman) is having a very bad day. Bulldozers have arrived to tear down his house to make room for a bypass. Dent is busy blocking the dozers with his pajamaed self, when his best friend, Ford Prefect (played by Mos Def), shows up with a grocery cart full of beer to stall the workers. He then whisks Dent off to a nearby pub where he buys each of them three pints each, and explains that the world is going to end in 12 minutes. Dent isn't really grasping this, but when the world-ending Vorgons show up in huge intergalactic space ships and announce that Earth will be blown up to, ironically, make room for an intergalactic bypass, people are starting to catch on. Dent doesn't notice, so preoccupied is he about his house, but the people in the bar ask if they should lay down on the floor and put paper bags over their head. "Sure, if you want," Ford says. As the world comes to its promised end, there are the barflies, lying on the floor, paper bags on heads, for really no apparent reason other than that’s apparently what people in mass suicide cults seem to do. So runs Adams' humor.

Ford grabs himself and Dent a ride on the Vorgon spaceship, and then explains that he's not really from Earth, but in fact a writer for the galaxy's best-selling book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which contains the answers to everything, even though most of those answers are quite useless. (For example, when Ford asks the Guide how to save someone from the Vorgons, it says "don't bother." And so forth.)

That begins a long space journey for Dent, throughout all of which he remains in his slouchy pajamas and terrycloth robe, while Ford stays clean as a whistle in a white suit. They soon hook up with the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, played whimsically by Sam Rockwell who takes the opportunity to cleverly mock current President of the Galaxy George W. Bush, as well as Dent's would-be girlfriend, Trillian, who was whisked away from him back in England when Zaphod decided to drop in on Earth and crash a London party.

("What did he have that I don't have? Two heads?" Dent asks Trillian. "A spaceship," she responds.)

The coolest part of the movie is when Dent and his guide for the moment, Slartibartfast, tour the mythical Planet Magrathea where planets are constructed. I don't know how they did this scene back in the late 70s and early 80s when the BBC made The Guide into a TV series, but with modern movie-making techniques, this scene was amazing. Dent and Slarti zip past planets under construction, mounted in a massive intergalactic sound stage, and when they reach Earth, workers are spraying water to make oceans, painting canyons red and landscaping houses.

The performances don’t really stand out, which is I why I didn't rate the movie higher. The actors do a fine job, but it's just way too hard to make something new of characters that rabid Guide fans already know far too well. To get too crazy would disappoint too many people, and that limits the actors' choices.

John Malkovitch shows up randomly as a spider-like preacher-man, essentially playing himself as always, and Alan Rickman mellifluously voices Marvin, the depressed robot.

Freeman as Dent and Def as Ford are perfectly cast. Zooey Deschanel as Trillian gets the most leeway, because if Ashley and I remember correctly, Trillian was a dopey blonde in the BBC original.

The thing that will always be best about The Guide is Douglas Adams' original concepts and his random humor, and this movie is successful because it remains so true to them. That's largely because Adams collaborated with Executive Producer Robbie Stamp until Adams' early death of a heart attack in 2001, so the film doesn't veer too far away from his vision. Spike Jonz (Being John Malkovitch, which may explain the actor’s appearance) was asked to direct this film, but he declined, recommending two English music-video directors instead. The pair of Hammer and Tongs, otherwise known as Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, took the movie over and did an admirable job in their first feature film venture.

I wanted to use martini glasses as my star system, but this blog doesn't support symbols so I'm giving The Guide three and a half asteriks (what it does support) out of a potential five. I think Ashley would give it a full five. I asked her to write her own review and she said: "Brilliant!" and tottered off to make drunk phone calls. So that may be it from her.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: ***1/2. A lot of fun.

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