Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) discovers his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is an alien, the day the earth is due to be destroyed by Vogons to make way for an interstellar bypass. They hitch a ride off the planet only to discover themselves in the company of Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), alien cousin of Ford and president of the Universe, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), an earth-girl Arthur once tried to chat up at a party, and Marvin (Alan Rickman), a paranoid android. Zaphod has stolen a ship, the Heart of Gold, which runs on an improbability drive - turning missiles into a bowl of petunias or a sperm whale, to give but an example of its power. Arthur wants to prove how exciting he is to Trillian, whilst helping the motley crew discover the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything. Not quite your average trip to the multi-plex!

Despite being based on cult-favourite books, the movie version of Douglas Adams’ opus attracted precious little pre-production angst from fanboys (Harry Knowles notably giving it the thumbs up). However, to be a voice of discord amongst a normally so hard-to-please audience, the end result did not manage to win me over.

As an avid fan of the novels (a trilogy in five parts, as Adams was fond of saying), I felt that the big screen version lacked some of the point and most of the wit of its literary beginnings. The books reflect such a quintessentially English base that it was very hard to reconcile some of the actors with their characters – far too many Americans took up pivotal roles, playing their parts too loudly or too flamboyantly. The narration of Stephen Fry, the quirkiness of Bill Bailey (Sperm Whale), the perfect casting of Bill Nighy (Slartibartfast), and the boredom of Alan Rickman somewhat make up for the brash southern screaming of the normally excellent Rockwell. However, the balance is negatively tipped by the blandness of Zooey Deschanel, and the uncharismatic efforts of Mos Def.

Arthur, the ‘eye of the storm’ in the novels, is relegated to amusing bumbler – Freeman very much relying on his incarnation as Tim from The Office for inspiration. However, since Tim tends to have Arthur-like tendencies, this really is not such a bad thing, and he actually fits the character perfectly. Arthur’s attempts to come to terms with the demolition of the earth, the appearance of a woman he has failed with, and the discovery that his best friend is an alien are reduced to insignificant reactions, rather than mind-blowing revelations. Trillian was originally the woman Arthur fails to interest at a party – partially because of the appearance of an exciting alien, Zaphod, but mostly due to Arthur’s ineptness at communicating with the opposite sex. She is now the main romantic interest of what has inexplicably become a love-story.

Arthur never willingly left earth, or trusted Ford, despite the imminent destruction of his world. This was part of Arthur’s charm…resisting change being such a quintessentially English foible. Hollywood Arthur, however, accepts quite a lot of what Ford tells him with minimum fuss – actually seeming to enjoy space travel (something the Arthur of the novels could never get used to). Emotions and plot-points of such central and seemingly immovable importance in the novel are given little time on screen. Even the introduction of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ travel/survival book is merely an afterthought. Though it should be a pivotal object in the tale, it becomes another narrative aside, having the same bearing as the sudden appearance of a sperm whale – quirky and amusing, but ultimately unimportant.

Aficionados of the books will be disappointed; there is too much bluster and not enough substance…the opening scene, a musical number by dolphins, being a case in point. The constant barrage of ‘in jokes’ becomes wearying, with fans getting an occasional tit-bit to laugh knowingly at in order to feel somewhat fulfilled.

All in all, I was disappointed on most levels with the movie – acting, script, story and execution. However, occasional flashes of brilliance hold it together: the Vogons are almost perfect, and Magrathean’s factory floor, where planets are built, is as good as any imagination. As an adaptation of adventure-filled, intelligent and comedic ‘trilogy’, it fails – lacking much relationship with the original plot. As a movie in it’s own right, it mostly passes, but with a story too rushed to make sense, it is too overblown to really connect with the audience.

An English story sugar-coated and amended for the worldwide audience, it amounts to a disappointing end-result from such a fantastic franchise opportunity.

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