Monday, May 02, 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Cautionary Tale or Studio Yahtzee?

It has been a very long time since I read the classic science fiction novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I was maybe ten or eleven years old, and remember finding it delightful, funny and fun, but many of the specifics have sadly faded away over time.

It was my intention to reread the book before I saw the movie version released by Touchstone/Disney this past Friday. But like many things in life, sadly that intention never came to bear. So it was with a fairly blank slate and stifled eagerness that I walked into the theatre this weekend to see THGTTG.

So much was going on in that movie that I'm not quite sure where to being in this review.

Overall, though I was greatly entertained and intrigued during different portions of this film, I left the theatre feeling a bit dissatisfied and empty. This is not the sort of movie that will hold up to multiple viewings. I have a feeling that the more you watch this movie the more holes would be revealed in the cloth of the story.

Ah yes, "story", that old chestnut. An element that screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick and one or more of the nine producers on the film neglected to focus on while working on this film. While talking about the story problems that the movie had, to other friends of mine, there were several people who responded by saying "Oh well, the book is meandering and episodic and crazy, so it's not their fault." (they being the film makers, studio, etc.) This excuse just doesn't fly with me. Now it is a different thing to say perhaps, that this book should never have been made into a movie. But the truth of the matter is, once greenlit, it is the job of the film makers to adapt the original material in such a way that it is suited to the medium of film, and functions fully as a cinematic story. That is their job. People can not adapt a book into a feature film and then when the film doesn't turn out right, turn around and blame the source material. It's ridiculous.

The film starts off introducing us to the character, Arthur Dent, whose home is about to be demolished and paved over with a highway bypass. As Arthur tries to save his home, his eccentric friend Ford Prefect scoots him off to the local pub, where he tells Arthur some startling news. Ford Prefect, confesses that not only is he not human, but that the world is going to end in about five minutes. Adding insult to injury, Arthur had recently met a young woman, by the name of Trisha, at a party. Arthur was thwarted in his attempts to woe her on that occasion and is now devastated that he will never get another chance with her.

Just as the world is about to explode, Ford Prefect saves himself and Arthur by hitching a ride on the spaceship of the Vogons, the race of bureaucratic aliens that has just annihilated earth.

From this introductory point of the film, we are flooded with a plethora of information that I struggled to follow. It is established that there is a book called "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" which details all sorts of factoids and helpful hints about hitching in space. I thought the way that the book was introduced, and the format by which they showed the guide's content was fairly clever. The rudimentary computer animation felt both campy retro and futuristic all at the same time.

Arthur and Ford eventually end up on the ship of the Galaxy's president Zaphod Beeblebrox. Here, we discover that Trillian (known to Arthur as Trish, the pretty young thing from the costume party) is romantically involved with Zaphod. This sets into motion, what is in my opinion, a ridiculous plot line, where consumed by "love" for Trillian, Arthur tries to win her affection and continuously risk his own neck to save hers. Martin Freeman, who gives a darling performance as Arthur, has little to no chemistry with Zooey Deschanel who plays the role of Trillian/Trisha. Deschanel came off flat and without charisma, and the weakness of her performance was only exacerbated by the fact that her character was poorly written. From what I remember of the book, there was no romance between Trillian and Arthur. It felt incredibly forced when the movie kept trying to sell that Arthur was head over heels for Trillian after one brief interaction with her at a party. At the risk of sounding like a horrible studio executive, the character of Trillian had no grounding, nor was there a clear sense of what her journey was in the film. She was an earthling, who had somehow ended living with the president of the galaxy, and also working as the technical/science advisor on his ship. Yet her place in the story of the film was vague, and Trillian came across as the staple female character/love interest of the film rather than a fleshed out character with her own unique traits and quirks of her own. Booooooooooooring.

For me, the best part of Hitchhiker's Guide, was Sam Rockwell's portrayal of self-assured president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox. Rockwell's go for broke attitude in every scene, lifted the moments of tedious plot, making the dull feel breezy. His cheesy blonde locks, over-bleached teeth, and over the top costumes were the perfect visual compliments to his loud, foolish, rockstar rambling. The only discrepancy that I found annoying was that in the book, his character has two full size heads that sat on his torso, and spoke directly to one another. However, (in what I gather was a financially driven move) the film makers decided that Zaphod's second head would only pop out occasionally from his neck, and that it would be removed about two thirds of the way into the film, so that it need not be seen again. The visual FX for Zaphod's second head were a bit wince worthy, but forgivable because of how vibrantly Rockwell played the role.

As for the other characters, Mos Def was serviceable, and at times even funny as Ford Prefect. Alan Rickman added understated humor as the voice of Marvin, the manically depressed robot.

The visuals of the film vacillated from solidly done to fantastic, varying from sequence to sequence of the film. I thought the puppetry for the Vogons was great looking and I though they were even a bit reminiscent of Jim Henson Dark Crystal stuff. Zaphod's spherical white spaceship looked neat, and its white blown out interiors gave a curious futuristically sterile feel to them. I really liked the sequence where Bill Nighy's character Slartibartfast shows Arthur around the planet construction plant. The director's choice to first show a totally banal rundown space that looks like a graveyard for old science projects, and then have Slart and Arthur shoot out into space where there are these glorious virtual blueprints, with the heavens all around them was really clever.
I thought John Malkovitch's character of Humma Kavula had an incredibly creepy design with the thick coke bottle glasses that covered up his exposed ocular sockets, and a lower torso made up of centipede like metal legs. I also thought that the scene of the worship service in the chapel-like space was quite satirical and interesting. It is a shame that these scenes were not woven thematically with the idea of the search for the universal question to end all questions, and its answer. Unfortunately Humma did not reappear in the film and that storyline was left behind in the dust as the movie continued.

My sentiment that different segments of the film could have been tied together more successfully brings me to my next point. This film was lacking a real through line and point. Great fantasies and science fiction as wacky or imaginative as they might be, always have an overall theme and plot point that pushed the story along. In Lord of the Rings, it was to get the ring to Mordor. In Star Wars: A New Hope, it was to destroy the death star. In Jaws, it was to kill the shark. You get the picture. It wasn't clear what the centerpoint of this movie was. Was it a love story between Arthur and Trillian? Was it about finding away to save or bring back planet earth? Was it about defeating and destroying the Vogons?

The goal(s) of the protagonists in this film were unclear, and as much as I might have enjoyed different moments of the film, the underlying thematic muddiness prevented me from completely getting enveloped in the film. As they bounced around from planet to planet, met colorful characters, and picked up various items, I kept asking myself, ...why?

For me the philosophical and thematic crux of the movie felt like it was with those scenes of the giant computer on Magrathea. If the film had been framed within the context of this larger universal story, of these two child like wiseman trying to answer the mystery of life for the sake of their civilization, I think it would have had a more complete and resonant story line.

But at the end of the day The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has thus far proven to be a success. It came in number one at the box office, grossing over $21 million dollars. I'm sure between the popularity among audiences and the monetary success, everybody over at Disney is feeling pleased at punch. I guess as long as lazy adaptations of beloved books keep doing well, writers and film makers will continue to slack off. Oh well, there's always the sequels.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mike said...

When is your blog going to be added to the sites listed on rottentomatoes.com?

12:44 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Aw shucks, now I'm blushin'!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I pretty much agree with your entire review of HHGTTG.
I also wanted to let you know that while I don't post very often I visit your blog regularly.
Take care.

4:04 PM  

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