Don't Panic! It's not that bad

Posted by Dan Saturday, May 21, 2005
Being a review of the movie The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I can't begin to tell you how much I really wanted to love this movie. Like most American kids, my first exposure to The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy came in the form of a wholly remarkable book that was expanded by its' author, Douglas Adams, from his original radio play. To say that the book and its' subsequent sequels changed my life would be somewhat of an overstatement, but it did open my eyes to a whole lot of new things.

To my 14 year old brain, this book was a mind blowing experience. Filled to bursting with intergalactic travel, impossibly clever devices and bizarre comedy shtick, it was the first time I'd read comedy mixed with my beloved science fiction. I was hooked.

Over the years, the Hitchiker's series has been one of the few I've read and re-read, and enjoyed multiple times. I can blame Douglas Adams for my first exposure to Monty Python, Black Adder, Dr. Who, The Prisoner, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett, just to name a few. His novels opened up whole new vistas for me. I even went so far as to send him a fan letter one time, thanking him for that.

In 1981, Douglas Adams transformed the Hitchiker's series into a mini series for the BBC. It debuted complete with sub standard special effects and a cruddy time slot (at least in the United States,) but it was well acted with sharp, witty dialogue, and in general, absolutely fabulous. So, with all this wonderful history behind the franchise, when the Hitchiker's movie was finally announced, it had a lot to live up to.

And on that note, it failed. I know, I know, I had unreasonably high expectations. But can you blame me? As a movie, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy isn't bad. It's just not spectacular. With each incarnation of the Hitchiker's series, be it radio, print, or TV, the main constant in Adams' reworkings has been change. The core story and characters remain the same, but the details get fiddled with. Rather than re-work the series in its existing medium like George Lucas did with Star Wars, Adams has always chosen to tweak the details as he transferred the story into different media. So, it was no surprise to me that the story was slightly different than what had gone before. I'm not prone to chronological snobbery, so I could handle the story being different. What I couldn't handle was the absence of Douglas Adams' razor keen wit, and his sharp eye for satire.

Is it funny? It has its moments, but it's not laugh-out-loud funny. Is it interesting? To a point, yes. I think the main problem is that it's just not what I wanted to see up on the screen. Am I suffering from, "I could have done it better," syndrome? Probably.

Martin Freeman is adequate as Arthur Dent, though he's a bit too competent in the clutch to really ring true to the source material. (Arthur was always a character who succeeded in spite of himself... In a Forrest Gumpian kind of way.) Mos Def is passable as Ford Prefect. There's been much ballyhooing about the casting of an African American in a role established by a British White Guy, but I hold with Douglas Adams' admonition that, "Arthur Dent should be British, everyone else should be cast based on merit." Sam Rockwell is horribly annoying as Zaphod, but considering I've always found Zaphod Beeblebrox a fairly annoying character anyway, he probably turned in the most dead on performance in the film. Even Zooey Deschanel, who was stellar as the big sister in Almost Famous, is only adequate as Trillian. The story's plot is just, okay. The performances are all just okay. The entire movie (except for a few absolutely jaw-dropping special effects) amounts to an amazing five finger exercise in mediocrity.

There are a few instances that stand out though. John Malkovich is inspired as Humma Kavula, a sinister cult leader. Anna Chancellor is great as Questular, Zaphod's vice president with a crush. These two characters were created specifically for the movie and they brought it a much needed sense of newness for me. The casting of Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin is inspired, but he's given little to do, and his innate paranoia has been written out so that he's now Marvin the manically depressed android.

As a whole, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy is simply adequate. It's not spectacular, and it's bursting with lots of missed opportunities to bring in Adam's razor keen eye for satire. It should have been a lot more than it was. Seeing this movie should have been similar to being hit over the back of your head with a very large brick, wrapped in a slice of lemon. It's not, but it's still worth a Saturday matinee. It will definitely be worth a rental, which is, I guess, better than most movie fare we're going to get this summer.


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Im an essayist, critic, online blogger, short story writer and to borrow a descriptor from Peter David, "Writer of stuff." I love all things pop culture related: Music, Movies, Comics, Books, Politics... if you can label it I probably have an opinion about it, and I love to argue. All informed opinions are welcome here.
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