Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent
Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox
Mos Def as Ford Prefect
Zooey Deschanel as Trillian
Warwick Davis as Marvin
Alan Rickman as Marvin (voice)
Stephen Fry as Narrator (voice)
John Malkovich as Humma Kavula
Helen Mirren as Deep Thought (voice)
Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast
Bill Bailey as The Whale (voice)
Anna Chancellor as Questular Rontok
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a perfectly normal fellow who’s house is unfortunately about to be demolished to make room for a new expressway. Ironically, the same thing is about to happen to the planet Earth. Luckily for Arthur, his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) happens to be alien himself and they escape Earth before it is destroyed and hitch a ride with the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and his girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), who also happens to be the love of Arthur’s life, or would have been if Zaphod hadn’t snatched her up from him with an offer to take a ride in his spaceship. Together with Zaphod’s manic depressive robot Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), they go on an adventure across the galaxy to discover the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, while staying one step ahead of the not-quite-evil-but-more-mindlessly-beaureacratic Vogons chasing them.
If that sounds like an awful lot of big things going on that are all potentially very confusing, it is. That is one of the many charms of Douglas Adams’ often strange but always entertaining comedy sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As an adaptation the film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide is imperfect at best, often badly missing the tone and spirit of the book. As a film in and of itself, however, it is funny more often than it is not, and all around entertaining. While a direct translation of the book would have been impossible because of its digressionary style, the best moments in the film are still the ones that come straight of the book, such as the interior monologue of a newborn sperm whale that finds itself falling towards an alien planet, and world-builder Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) explaining to Arthur that his planet and everyone on it were in fact built at the order of mice. These moments have the poetical lyricism and rampant absurdism that marked the best of Adams’ writing, and the film version would be much stronger if it had more of it. The rest of the film is often very funny as well – particularly the planet that smacks people in the face with a shovel whenever they have a thought – and anyone not familiar with the material won’t know what they’re missing.
The performances, especially of the leads, in general are a bit uneven, but strong enough at the right points to carry the film along. The side characters like Slartibartfast and nose-cult leader Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) come off the best, slipping in quickly to revel in the absurdity and then slipping out again. The four main characters, who are around long enough that they have to show some sort of dimensionality, have the most problems. Martin Freeman as everyman Dent is the best. Mos Def is very dry and sometimes his flat delivery just doesn’t work. But sometimes it does, and his use of a towel in all situations is outstanding. He has wonderful chemistry with Freeman, and their scenes together at the beginning of the film are his strongest. It’s unfortunate they didn’t have more scenes together. Sam Rockwell may be the cast member who gets raked over the coals by fans the most. His version of Zaphod – described in the books as the coolest man in the universe – is more of a brainless, narcissistic rock star, which is only about half right. In the context of the film it works, and he is often very funny, but long time fans might not be able to see past the changes to accept it. Zooey Deschanel comes off the worst. Trillian was always the most thinly sketched of the four, and quite a few changes have been made to her to make her more of a character. Which isn’t bad in and of itself, but Deschanel’s performance is so flat and annoying – sometimes it sounds as if she is reading off of cue cards – it’s hard to really care what she is saying or see any kind of connection between her and Arthur.
The rest of the film works just as it should. The production design is superb, sometimes outdoing the descriptions in the book, and the creature work by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop is excellent. First time director Garth Jennings makes great use of the tools of the sci-fi adventure movie to poke fun at the genre without ever pulling the audience out of the film.
Fans of the book will probably be a little disappointed, but anyone encountering the Hitchhiker’s Guide for the first time should be thoroughly entertained. It is very strange and very funny in a way that Adams’ work exemplified.
Rated PG for thematic elements, action and mild language.