The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Directed by Garth Jennings

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Moments after learning that the Earth is going to be demolished, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) escapes from his doomed planet onboard a Vogon spaceship in the company of his friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who just happens to be an extra-terrestrial writer employed by the publisher of the universe's most popular reference book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Although the Vogons promptly jettison the pair into space, they are picked up by Ford's semi-cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who, as president of the galaxy, has been able to steal an experimental spaceship and is travelling in it with a young Earth woman, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and his depressed robot, Marvin.

Garth Jennings' adaptation of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the screenplay of which was written by the latter, is an often enjoyable if rarely memorable comedy.

Although it is not consistently hilarious, the first half of the movie is usually fun to watch. The director's attempts at humor may be hit or miss, but he has included enough that is inventively realized to keep the viewer engaged. Sadly, the film's latter part, in which its more contrived and irksome elements become predominant, can be so tedious that, rather than remembering what came before this section, the moviegoer will finish the story with only its duller moments in his mind.

Visually, the movie, throughout its duration, veers from ordinariness to being absolutely delightful. Thus, while Zaphod's nemesis, Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), who is depicted as a human torso supported by myriads of spindly mechanical legs, and the Vogons, an officious species of extra-terrestrials, who have been made into lumpish, green, pear shaped horrors, like colossal, bipedal dust mites, are both weirdly entertaining, most of the interiors in which the story's happenings occur look as though they could have been lifted from any one of countless other science fiction adventures and the worlds the heroes visit are about as impressive as a disused quarry.

I should also note that, for whatever reason, the narrative of this incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been changed significantly from those of its earlier versions. While this need not be problem, it is. The story has been given a little more unity, even though it still largely consists of a series of independent episodes, but it has also been burdened with a painfully forced and entirely hackneyed romance. Arthur has been made to pine for Trillian, and she, in the end, has been caused to realize that he is the man for her. This whole theme is so intrusive and formulaic that it diminishes the quality of the entire movie.

Be this as it may, the animated sequences depicting selections from the book of the title are generally well done and provide what are, very likely, the film's most enjoyable moments. Stephen Fry's dry narration of these is perfect and does bring out Douglas' sly wit. The viewer is consequently able to enjoy the writer's comments about various bizarre details of his delightfully cock-eyed universe.

Regrettably, even this strange galaxy, while still amusing, is rarely as cleverly delineated as it has been before. Films, radio serials, and books are all, admittedly, different media, and a transformation of a work belonging to one of these into something belonging to another should be judged for what it is. Nevertheless, a comparison of some of the material that has appeared in the earlier forms of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy can make it clear how bland and undaring the current work is.

Adams' hilarious Guide entry about the Babel fish, for example, though filmed, has not been included in the movie. In this, the narrator of the fictional book describes how the Babel fish, an imaginary creature which, if placed in a person's ear, will enable him to understand any language he hears, has been used to disprove God's existence. The argument the author gives goes something like this: The Babel fish is so useful it could not have evolved by accident, but, as its existence thus proves the existence of an intelligent maker, God, it removes the need for faith in God, without which God is nothing. Sadly, this joke and others like it were, apparently, simply too potentially controversial for the director.

As unfortunate as is Adams' excision of several of the most entertaining elements of his story, his retention of many details that are not in the least funny is just as regrettable. The outrageously overdone character Zaphod Beeblebrox is, for instance, so horribly annoying I rather wish Adams had forgotten about his existence or replaced him with someone less grating. There is not a moment when he is on screen that is not like watching someone torturing a helpless animal.

Instead of being bold and funny, the film tries to be likeable and cute. There is a fair amount of pleasing material, but it is rarely as good as the best that can be found in the story's previous forms. I do not see why the author could not have improved on these efforts by streamlining them into a display of his best ideas. Unfortunately, he has generally done the opposite. While The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not so bad that it is unwatchable, it is entirely ordinary and forgettable.

Review by Keith Allen

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