WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: Englishman Arthur Dent is slightly upset when a brash partygoer runs off with the girl of his dreams, rather more upset when his house is demolished to make way for a bypass, and considerably put out when a fleet of alien ships demolish his planet. Luckily, his eccentric friend Ford Prefect has means to rescue them both, and their subsequent interplanetary wanderings bring Arthur with a number of familiar faces.
First off, a confession. Since – for some reason – my life story has not yet been made the subject of a film, there are few films the basic plot of which I know so intimately as Hitchhiker’s, the radio show that became the novels that became the TV series, the play, the records, the towel and, after twenty years of agonising and the death of author Douglas Adams, this. As such, it is difficult for me to give an entirely neutral perspective on the film; but, given that the budget and effects of the television show were widely acknowledged to be extremely limited, this lavish, Disney-backed visualisation of Adam’s cult fiction had every chance of impressing.
For those unaware of the premise (where have you been all this time?), the Hitchhiker’s Guide is a kind of universal Notebook, filled with irreverent encyclopaedic information on a limitless host of planets for the benefit of the interspatial traveller: a brilliant sci-fi idea in 1978, quite easily doable now; but never mind. The book’s wisdom is calmly dispensed by amusing, stylised cartoons and the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry, as good a match for the original iterations’ Peter Jones as you could hope for. Unwitting English human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) stumbles across the Guide when his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) hauls him away from planet Earth just as an ugly, bureaucratic alien race called the Vogons demolish it to create a Hyperspace Expressway; though quickly ejected from the Vogon ship, Ford and Arthur are miraculously picked up by a ship called the Heart of Gold, whose inhabitants include two-headed space cowboy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, one head under the other), a depressed little robot called Marvin (the body of Warwick Davis and voice of Alan Rickman), and the lovely Tricia McMillan or Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), lured away from a fancy dress party where Arthur was instantly smitten but failed to act spontaneously.
If you are not familiar with an alternative version of Hitchhiker’s none of the above (pretty consistent in all versions) or what follows (very different in other versions) will strike you as particularly odd. Freeman’s Arthur is a pleasantly dull man, whilst Def’s Ford will probably come across as overacted but a game comic performance, even though the jokes about him coming from Guildford don’t really work. If, however, you know your Adams well, you will probably hate the film with a passion already. Firstly, because Arthur is not bafflingly upper-middle class but blokey; secondly, because he is motivated by an overwhelmingly soppy love for Trillian rather than the search for a decent cup of tea now the Earth no longer exists; thirdly, and massively importantly, because all of Douglas Adams’ lovingly-crafted jokes are mangled, mistreated and/or quoted out of place.
To give just the one example, Arthur’s rant about the plans for the bypass being on display, which in all other versions builds and peaks to the wonderful ‘Beware of the Leopard,’ here has him saying ‘it was in the cellar,’ which barely qualifies as a joke. In fact, you will probably have taken against the film the moment a dolphin-inspired show tune replaces The Eagles’ marvellous Journey of the Sorceror, and continued to despair from there.
Anyway, the film pits Zaphod against Arthur, the former losing some of his recklessness when his second head is held hostage by presidential rival Humma Kavula (a half-bodied John Malkovich) to ensure he returns a gun from planet-building planet Magrathea, the latter coming to regret his lack of gumption when faced with danger, excitement and really wild things. Trillian, through a convoluted kidnap-and-rescue subplot, discovers that Zaphod casually consented to the Earth’s destruction, so now only has one man to believe in as they land on Magrathea, home of the gun and, possibly, the question to life, the universe, and everything that fits the answer ’42.’ The complicated, meandering nature of the plot (Anna Chancellor is present throughout as an adoring Vice-President, but we have no idea why she exists until the very end) will most likely annoy Hitchhiker’s fans whilst boring the pants off viewers who will have no idea what’s going on, due to the slack writing of people who have taken great ideas and applied slapstick jokes to them in an attempt to turn out a family-friendly film. As Douglas has a co-writer credit, it is entirely possible that he is partially at fault.
As far as performances go, Freeman, Def, Fry and Rockwell are all perfectly adequate, and Deschanel does not have to do much to grab attention, such is the startling beauty of her eyes (though they make her have a shower anyway, just like in Elf!). Malkovich, in what amounts to a cameo, is sufficiently creepy, and Bill Nighy as nervous old planet-maker Slartibartfast is fine too. Where the film feels entirely wrong is in a couple of its voiceovers: Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren, as the voices of Marvin the depressed robot and brilliant computer Deep Thought, merely sound bored as they read their lines, and their voices sound almost entirely untreated, where you would imagine it would be cool to emphasise, however slightly, their exotic alien-ness.
The complaint must in part be coloured by previous versions of the story, but to have such a massive, imposing machine as Deep Thought reduced to a tired woman watching cartoons just seems wrong on every conceivable level. This is without complaining about the fact that the film ends suddenly without resolving some of its plot points, believing that Trillian kissing Arthur will make everything alright; or that Ford is sidelined to such an extent that the Guide’s entries now barely complement the plot at all, unlike other versions of the story.
It would be remiss not to mention a few positives. When it does appear, the Guide looks and sounds great; and the interlude with Bill Bailey’s Sperm Whale, since it’s read practically verbatim, is well done – in fact in terms of how it looks, Hitchhiker’s can hardly be faulted (I like the woollen emergence from Infinite Improbability and the Magrathean lifts). Unfortunately, these are obliterated by poor choices as to voice treatment, terrible cuts to Adams’ inspired words, and a plot that skitters horribly between the familiar and the new, to the advantage of neither, and making hardly any sense by its own internal logic. If you would like to see an utterly comprehensive and legendarily angry review, I recommend clicking here. I’m not that cross about the movie, since there are always other versions of Hitchhiker’s to fall back on; but this has to be considered a hugely disappointing mess.