Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” has seen so many iterations that I’m only waiting for the cave painting and haiku versions to cover the last remaining possibilities. I’m aware of a radio show, books and then a BBC TV mini-series, a computer game and even more books. The movie version, however, has been a long time in coming. I first became aware of the books and TV series as a college student in the mid-1980s and even back then, they were already talking about a film version. It wasn’t until this year that it finally came to fruition. The tortured path to the big screen is evident in that, four years after Adams’ death, he still gets a screenplay credit. Now that is being stuck in development hell.
In its original radio and book form, the Hitchhikers Guide was a knowing and affectionate lampoon of science-fiction cliches. A decade before Spaceballs, Adams was skewering the genre with far more precision and insight than Mel Brooks could hope to muster. The BBC radio and TV series, with their wry, Python-esque dialogue and word play, were intelligent low humor for brainy college students, and those of us who met that description (in our own estimation) embraced them.
Adapting such a hallowed collection of work to the big screen, especially with a fan base that can often quote the books from memory, had to be a daunting task. Peter Jackson may have had a similar challenge in adapting The Lord of the Rings, but at least he wasn’t expected to make it falling-down funny, too.
Unfortunately, someone dropped the ball on this version of Hitchhikers Guide. While much of Douglas Adam’s ideas and dialogue are still to be found, the sense of very British whimsy that pervaded the earlier versions is gone. The dry understatement of the earlier performances has been replaced by broad clowning. Sam Rockwell seems to be desperately searching for the right comic tone as fugitive Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox while never finding it. He spends more time “acting” funny than being funny. Mos Def is likewise lost in the role of Ford Prefect. Either that or he has the comic timing of a six-car pile-up. Only Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent seems to find a tone that works for his character, but since Arthur’s humor derives from playing off the absurbity of the characters around him, the failure of the other actors to connect with their roles leaves him hanging in the breeze. Zooey Deschanel is sweet and engaging as Tricia/Trillian, and the normally cliched romantic rivalry subplot is actually the one part of the film that works. Bill Nighy’s cameo as Slartibartfast also seems to go digging too hard for laughs rather than simply having faith in material that has been getting laughs for nearly three decades.
The pace is completely off, too. The movie seems to rush from joke to joke, set piece to set piece, never pausing to take its breath. Another problem was the fact that, out of the four lead actors, only one was actually British. While that’s less of a problem for Zaphod and Trillian, it destroys the character of Ford Prefect. Casting Mos Def was one fatal error among many.
The production design is eye-popping, especially the scene on the factory floor. The Vogon ship and planet have an effective Terry Gilliam-light atmosphere. The futuristic interior of the Starship Heart of Gold is nice and shiny like a spaceship should be but, in the end, looks more like a movie set than an actual place.
This is one movie that didn’t need any more trips through the word processor. The script was fine. It could have used a director with more faith in the material and perhaps more experience. This was Garth Jennings’ first feature film and, quite frankly, it shows.
And lest anyone think I’m just some old school Douglas Adams fan who can’t stand the changes made to his beloved Hitchhikers Guide, let me say that the one joke that did work, the Point-of-View Gun, was entirely new to this version.