The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The GalaxyA seemingly typical Thursday throws Englishman Arthur Dent for a loop as he witnesses the destruction, in rapid succession, of his house and then the entire world. That he witnesses the latter event instead of being caught up in it is solely thanks to the intervention of his quirky friend Ford Prefect, who turns out to be an alien in disguise, researching Earth for a publication known as the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. After escaping Earth’s demise, Ford and a dazed Arthur wind up aboard the stolen starship Heart Of Gold, whose captain, Zaphod Beeblebrox, is out of both of his minds. But Arthur is also reunited with Tricia McMillan, the only other surviving human being, and reminds her that she once turned down his advances in favor of an incognito Zaphod at a party on Earth. Soon, the Heart Of Gold is being pursued not only by a Vogon fleet trying to recover both the ship and Zaphod, but also by Humma Kavula, the candidate who Zaphod beat out for the presidency of the galaxy. Tricia is captured by the Vogons on a planet to which Kavula diverts the Heart Of Gold, and Arthur sets out to rescue her, even if he can’t necessarily win her heart in the attempt.

screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick
based on the book by Douglas Adams
directed by Garth Jennings
music by Joby Talbot

Cast: Martin Freeman (Arthur Dent), Sam Rockwell (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Mos Def (Ford Prefect), Zooey Deschanel (Trillian), Stephen Fry (The Voice of the Book), Warwick Davis (Marvin), Alan Rickman (Voice of Marvin), John Malkovich (Humma Kavula), Bill Nighy (Slartibartfast), Helen Mirren (Deep Thought), Richard Griffiths (Jeltz), Thomas Lennon (Eddie the Computer), Bill Bailey (The Whale), Anna Chancellor (Questular Rontok), Su Eliott (Pub Customer), Dominique Jackson (Fook), Simon Jones (Ghostly Image), Mark Longhurst (Bulldozer Driver), Kelly Macdonald (Reporter), Ian McNeice (Kwaltz), Steve Pemberton (Mr. Prosser / additional Vogon Voice), Mark Gatiss (additional Vogon Voice), Reece Shearsmith (additional Vogon Voice), Jack Stanley (Lunkwill), Mak Wilson (Vogon Interpreter), Albie Woodington (Barman), Jerome Blake (Vogon Soldier), Dan Ellis (Vogon Soldier), Tim Perrin (Vogon Soldier), Tucker Stevens (Vogon Soldier), Ben Uttley (Vogon Soldier), Patrick Walker (Vogon Soldier), Mason Ball (Creature Performer), Sarah Bennett (Creature Performer), Danny Blackner (Creature Performer), Hayley Burroughs (Creature Performer), Cecily Faye (Creature Performer), Ian Kay (Creature Performer), Nigel Plaskitt (Creature Performer), Lynne Robertson Bruce (Creature Performer)

Hitchhikers' Guide To The GalaxyNotes: The original Marvin suit from the 1981 BBC TV series makes a quite visible appearance in the office queue on Vogsphere. Similarly, Simon Jones, the TV series’ Arthur Dent, appears as the cheerfully threatening (and honest-to-Zarquon anaglyphic) “answering machine” spokesbeing who threatens to destroy anyone approaching Magrathea.

Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith were credited in the movie as “The League of Gentlemen,” also the name of their well-loved UK comedy series (and, at the time of Hitchhiker’s release, upcoming movie); composer Joby Talbot was the resident musician on The League of Gentlemen. Gatiss has also written Doctor Who novels as well as the third episode of the new version of that series. Coincidentally, Bill “Slartibartfast” Nighy was the runner-up for the role of the Doctor, narrowly losing out to Christopher Eccleston.

Stephen Fry continued his Hitchhiker’s Guide association by lending his voice to the final episodes of the BBC radio series relaunched in 2004.

Richard Griffiths was the voice of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz in this movie, but in the recent relaunch of the radio series he was the voice of Slartibartfast, filling in for the late Richard Vernon.

Hitchhikers' Guide To The GalaxyThe face of Douglas Adams can be seen prominently in two scenes; his face is one of the custom worlds under construction in the Magrathean planet-building yards, and his face is also the last thing into which the Infinite Improbability Drive morphs the Heart of Gold before the end credits. Adams’ family, including his wife, are among the panicked London crowds glimpsed briefly before the world ends.

Jerome Blake seems to spend a lot of time filling out aliens’ skins; he has also had roles in all three of the Star Wars prequels, as well as The Fifth Element.

Review: I’ve avoided other people’s reviews for this movie as much as possible to see this one with my eyes and my mind wide open, so I don’t really know if anyone out there is actually in the process of actively disliking The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. For my part, I loved it – between this and what I’ve seen of the new Doctor Who, I feel like British science fiction is entering a renaissance (though I’m waiting to see if The Tripods ever escape Hollywood development hell before I award the triple crown on that front). But the Guide made it through relatively unscathed – even with some Hollywoodification, the movie is tremendously enjoyable and surprisingly true to its source material, in tone if not necessarily in word-for-word faithfulness.

What’s different? Quite a few things, really, the biggest being the romance angle between Arthur and Trillian. In the radio series and the books, there was always a bit of an Arthur-Trillian-Zaphod triangle going on, only Arthur never quite came out on top. Here he does and, Hollywood concession to traditionalist storytelling or not, it works. There are some sidesteps on the way to Magrathea as well, but nothing that really violates the true “feel” of everything Douglas Adams had done before with the same basic story; the fact that Adams was very much involved in the movie’s script would, one hopes, give the naysayers something to chew on. (And so, too, should the fact that Hitchhiker’s Guide has always been subject to sweeping revisions, from the original BBC radio series to the novels to the record adaptations of the radio series (which took their own unique plot twists) to the short-lived TV series to the computer game. Adams was never beyond making huge changes to his own storylines.)

The cast is exceptional, with Martin Freeman (of The Office fame – the original BBC version, that is) offering up his own interpretation of Arthur Dent. (Not that his predecessor in the role didn’t take a few shots at him – Simon Jones shows up in a cameo as the holographic recording from Magrathea announcing that complimentary nukes are being served up to the Heart of Gold.) Mos Def is a fine Ford Prefect, and in fact I wish he’d gotten more screen time to make even more of an impact; really, his most Ford-ish scene is in the flashback to his first meeting with Arthur on Earth. Sam Rockwell adds a surprisingly effective good-ole-boy quality to Zaphod Beeblebrox, though an event occurs about halfway into the movie that robs Zaphod of his bite, and really, much of his appeal for the remainder of the movie. The real standouts, aside from Freeman, are Zooey Deschanel as Trillian and Alan Rickman’s vocalization of Marvin. Trillian really comes into her own here, possibly more than in any other iteration of the franchise that came before, and is remarkably effective. Douglas Adams admitted many times that he didn’t really know what to do with Trillian in the earlier versions of the story, and it’s good to see that he finally latched onto it. Zooey Deschanel latched onto the character as well, and made her tremendously appealing, feisty, and smart. (And she’s definitely easy on the eyes too.) Hopefully Rockwell and Mos Def, along with the all-too-briefly-seen Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, will get more screen time and more weirdness if there’s a sequel.

The look of the film is quirky and eye-popping. The brick-like description of the Vogon ships dates back to the late ’70s, though I’m expecting to hear someone say that the movie’s designers ripped off the Borg. The Heart of Gold, both inside and out, and even all of its associated hardware, are a dandy excuse to slip back in time to when movie spaceships were gleaming and not one bit weathered-down (again, the factory-fresh state of the Heart of Gold is mandated by the descriptions in the original text). There’s one particular scene in which, freshly emerged from the Infinite Improbability Drive, our heroes appear to have arrived in a slightly different form from how we’re used to seeing them by that point, and it’s very well done and very funny. The scenes inside Magrathea’s vast tracts of hyperspace are dazzling stuff. The Vogons are really… well… considering they’re products of the Jim Henson Creature Shop… rather Rygel-ish. But I enjoyed the fact that the Vogons were physically there, on the set with the actors, for much of their screen time, instead of being CGI-only.

The Guide entries themselves earn their own design note – this part of the movie was utterly fantastic, and better than I had hoped. The TV series set the bar extraordinarily high, even in 1981, for what the Guide’s graphics should look like, and the film takes them in a slightly different direction, though it seems fairly obvious that, either on the design level or at Adams’ insistence during the pre-production phases of the movie, someone at least looked to the TV series and took notes on its general style, pacing and “information overload” tone. Be sure you watch through all of the end credits, as the Guide reappears and tells you some more useful things about the universe while you’re watching.

Joby Talbot’s score, whose CD review I’ll tackle at a later date, is outstanding. The opening “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish” number couldn’t have been a more perfect opening for the movie, and its basic melody becomes a bit of a motif in the rest of the movie’s score. And if you’re worried about “The Journey Of The Sorcerer”, which had been the theme music dating back to the radio series, it appears here too – in a brand new, fully orchestral rendition which literally left tears in my eyes when I heard it. I get the impression that the film may have been temp-tracked with music from Men In Black during editing, because Talbot’s score has something of the same busy, bombastic quality – though that’s not a bad thing.

Overall, I feel much the same way about Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that I did about the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie – it amazes me how much of the original feel and even the original text made it into the film. There were several places where I knew exactly what the next line would be, and sat there in gleeful anticipation of how it would play out on-screen. The audience in the theater the night I saw it really seemed to “get it” as well – an audience, it must be said, which skewed much older than the age group toward which the film was marketed. (For those wondering if it’s kid-friendly, it definitely is – there are a couple of wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments, like Arthur asking Trillian – about Zaphod – “Does he have two of anything else?” – but nothing as “out there” as the book’s mention of the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.)

The plot deviations bring Hitchhiker’s Guide to an obvious launching point for a sequel, but whatever course the story takes from here in subsequent movies, it will almost have to differ much more from the source material than this movie did. With an established romantic angle between Arthur and Trillian, and what seems to be the restoration of Earth, for example, any adaptation of So Long And Thanks For All The Fish would practically have to throw that book out and start over, and it’d preclude virtually everything in Mostly Harmless as well. And without Douglas Adams on hand to shepherd the writing and pre-production phases of those movies as he did on this one prior to his death in 2001, that is where I’d start to get a bit iffy on the changes. In any case, the earlier iterations of the story are still out there (and, if you’re new to the Guide, I heartily recommend you check out at least the books to get a taste of Adams’ original intent with the story, as well as his inimitable writing – you’ll see why quite a few hefty chunks of it made it into the movie word-for-word).

A dandy new read on the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and personally, much more enjoyable than I was expecting.

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