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The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (2005)
Director: Garth Jennings

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Watching this film prompted a degree of soul searching on my part. As it's a remake of a much loved and quintessentially British work by Douglas Adams you really have to work out where you stand on the relationship between this film, the TV series and the radio play. Should one bray with outrage of the sacrilegious changes? Should one be charitable and open-minded and judge it as a new film? Should one even address the changes between this version and the previous versions? To be honest I found it very easy to immediately discount the first option.

Adams and many of the commentators remember a time when sci-fi meant the dry as dust speculation of Asimov and Clarke or the increasingly bizarre political rants of Heinlein. For those kinds of audiences The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy must have proved a blissful release from pomposity and self-importance. Adams was a man who could take complicated ideas and present them in a way that wasn't just accessible but also funny and sly. I first encountered the TV series when I was very young and, along with Red Dwarf and Terry Pratchett have formed a kind of canon for my tastes in science fiction.

I never necessarily sought out Adams' work or even re-watched it but it was always there in the back of my mind. A philosopher whose name escapes me once wrote of early analytical philosophers like Russell and Ayer that for them Plato or Leibniz were not to be revered or kow-towed to like Catholic relics but were to be argued with, rejected, laughed at as you would with any other thinker. To me that is the purpose of canon; it is to be built upon, to be adapted, reinvented and undermined. As a result I was never going to be in a position of sniffing at the changes made to the TV series or radio scripts in this heavily budgeted and hyped big screen adaptation (particularly seeing as a sizeable chunk of it was adapted by Adams himself before he died).

The film starts zestfully with a song and dance number reminiscent of the synchronised swimming musicals of vintage Hollywood but this time it's performed by dolphins wishing humanity "so long and thanks for all the fish" before the planet's destroyed. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is trying to stop his house from being demolished when Ford Prefect (Mos Def) turns up with the bad news that it's not just his house that he needs to worry about. The pair escape onto the Vogon ship by hitching and rides before being thrown off and collected by a passing spaceship manned by Galactic President, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) - a girl Dent fancied before Zaphod turned up and seduced her, and Marvin the 'Paranoid Android' (Warwick Davis, voice by Alan Rickman). The group set off for Magrathea in order to discover the question to which '42' is the answer and get side tracked rescuing Trillian, stealing guns for Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) - the man Zaphod beat in the election, and meeting up again on the building site of the second Earth.

The performances are pretty good given that, all things considered; nobody has very much to work with. Mos Def twitches and gurns his way through the role of Ford but shows excellent comic timing, Rockwell is magnificently shallow as the idiotic but handsome and famous Zaphod, and Rickman is a bit of a disappointment as the voice of Marvin. It's Freeman and Deschanel who have the most to work with though as they are given a romantic subplot, and Dent's change from stone to rose (to borrow a phrase from Withnail And I) as he realises that there's a great big universe out there that's worth seeing. Deschanel's adventurous and evolving Trillian (hence her playing Darwin at the costume party where she meets the colonial Dent dressed as Dr Livingstone) has little to work with and ultimately the relationship fails to convince.

The original radio play and TV series weren't really dramas; they were extended comedy shows and the plot served mainly as a place to hang Adams' jokes. The film though tries to act as a kind of drama by including a romantic subplot that gives Dent a character arc and a chance to be heroic by rescuing Trillian. This is an uneasy shift because Adams' original Dent was a quintessential Englishman and a satirical target as a result. Dent was not a sympathetic everyman but a deeply conservative and ignorant buffoon who is largely oblivious to the wonders of the universe and almost entirely motivated by a desire to go home and have a cup of tea. This complex and ultimately silly character though is condensed into someone who... well, is a bit unadventurous. He won't go off to Madagascar with a woman he doesn't know but he will go to Cornwall, and he will lie down in front of a bulldozer, and knock a complete stranger out of the path of a speeding car... but he's unadventurous. This poses problems for a scriptwriter because a lot of the jokes directed at Dent cease to work, they get around this cleverly by making Zaphod an even more dislikeable character than he used to be so the jokes that would seem mean spirited towards the hero now just serve to underline how much of a git he is. The romantic subplot is added to the already condensed plot and as a result the romance between Trillian and Dent seems to come from almost nowhere and Dent's transformation from 'a stone to a rose' happens simply because he's been in space. There's simply not enough time to see either of these additions so they come off as artificial and a little bit cynical, especially when you compare it to something like Shaun Of The Dead, which explores the same relationship themes through genre-comedy, producing a relationship that seems real and worth rooting for.

In fact, once you add in the romantic scenes, the rescue scene, the Humma Kavula scenes (that ultimately don't serve any purpose other than set up a slightly hackneyed gag about a point-of-view gun and male stupidity) and the inflation of the Vogons from bit-players and joke to nemeses, you realise that Jennings actually adds quite a bit to the plot despite the fact that he's also trying to condense a lot of material into a couple of hours. Clearly something has to go and, unfortunately, it's a lot of the raisons d'etre of the original series... namely Adams' jokes. The restaurant at the end of the universe is demoted to a weak one-liner with all its jokes lost without trace, Ford's explanation of hyperspace is cut leaving him with a completely inexplicable fetish for carrying a bath-towel around, and the miniature battle fleet is cut from the film but eventually played during the end credits. To be fair to Jennings, this is partly Adams' fault because, as time went on and the series was developed further and further, Adams himself started to recast Dent as a noble figure rather than the butt of jokes, and Marvin was eventually downgraded to a bit player. Because Adams worked on this script towards the end of his life, the script suffers from the spin Adams himself ended up putting on the characters he created.

Jennings seems to try and balance a desire to pay homage to the original material with the ability to appeal to a mainstream audience and thereby justify the large budget, which does result in appropriately stunning visuals. The result is an unsatisfying film that fails to capture what was great about the source material but also fails to add positively to it. Great jokes are cut only to be replaced with the group walking through a senseless minefield of robot face slapping machines and the dark satirical heart of the original work is cut, but scenes are included that give cameos to the original Dent and Marvin.

A more ruthless and ambitious director would have realised that Adams' spin on his own characters ultimately made them less funny. A more analytical director might have realised that the source material was not about funny aliens but about us, like all good sci-fi. A satirical series about the blinkered conservative nature of the British nation and the utterly inconsequential nature of life has been transformed into a film that suggests that ultimately life is beautiful, especially if you're in love. The problem is that as Friends and the works of Richard Curtis have demonstrated time and again, love isn't all that funny, and neither is this film.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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