Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

(Film Review: 3 Stars)

Gail and I just returned from seeing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and we represent both sides of the audience experience. Gail was unfamiliar with the stories - whereas I have read all five of the Douglas Adams books, heard the BBC radio series, seen the BBC television series... a fan-geek since the early '80s, in other words. So the following is my review, from the dyed-in-the-wool, able-to-recite-lines Fan perspective.

The story, repeated in so many media over the years, begins simply: The plant Earth is destroyed. Douglas Adams once revealed in an interview that he had decided to write a science-fiction story that began with the destruction of Earth, rather than ending that way. The story spirals outward wildly from there, following the trials of the planet's lone survivor, Englishman Arthur Dent; who survives because his friend, Ford Prefect, turns out to be an extraterrestrial researcher for a galactic travel-tips book and whisks him away at the last minute, in his bathrobe.

Adams himself was working on the screenplay when he died, suddenly, on his 49th birthday in 2001. The screenplay contains many of the elements and characters from the book, but the plot diverges widely for the latter two-thirds of the film. (Old-time readers, take note: This is very much a new story, not a retelling of the book, as the old BBC projects were.) A large part of the appeal of the original HHGG series, besides the absurd situations, was Adams' prose; engaging, wildly roundabout, with tremendously baroque sentence structures that roll on and on in dry British manner. It's not always easy to reproduce in performance, and the film doesn't strive all that hard to do so.

But the characters are there, and a lot of the film's goodness comes from how they are brought to life. Martin Freeman (of the BBC comedy series The Office) makes a fine Arthur Dent, hapless yet persevering. Alan Rickman voices Marvin, the Paranoid Android - one of the book's most memorable characters - to perfection, his voice rich with misery. And Sam Rockwell comes up with a new spin on freewheeling Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox - with an American accent reminiscent of a certain other well-known, dimwitted Southwestern figurehead.

A real treat of the film is that the Vogons, and many of the other fantastic aliens, are recreated not by CGI but by Jim Henson's Creature Workshop. The work they've done here is amazing, as always - hilarious caricatures, ingeniously brought to life.

I wonder what the impression will be for those who are new to the tale. The books themselves are sketchy, more like a series of episodes than a seamless story, and the film can be quick and confusing. But then, that's the authentic Arthur Dent experience - being thrown into a strange universe, on short notice, and struggling for meaning and survival.

Don't Panic.