THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


As a teenager, I read and loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and its sequels. Although never a particularly rabid fan of British comedy, there was something about the wonderful eccentricity of the late Douglas Adams’ writing that hooked me immediately. I remember the disappointment I felt when my local PBS channel ran the British TV adaptation of the book; somehow the material just didn’t translate to the small screen. It’s a problem shared by the new big screen adaptation. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy arrives with great anticipation from fans, but the movie is a big mess that’s almost certain to disappoint them. Those who see the film without ever having read the book may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Martin Freeman (who played the porn movie body double in Love Actually) stars as Arthur Dent, who wakes up one morning to discover that his house is being demolished to make way for a bypass. That’s the least of his problems. Arthur’s buddy Ford Prefect (Mos Def) shows up announcing that he’s really from outer space here on Earth to do research for the titular publication, a guide book that explains everything one could ever want to know about the solar system and its inhabitants. Moreover, Ford announces that a group of hostile aliens – the Vogons - is planning to blow up Earth in twelve minutes. Why? Ironically it’s in order to build an intergalactic hyperspace bypass.

Ford and Arthur hitchhike their way onto one of the alien ships and eventually jump over to the Heart of Gold, piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the president of the galaxy. Also on board is a depressed robot named Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) and Trisha McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) a.k.a. Trillian, the girl that Arthur was hitting on at a party before Zaphod showed up to woo her away. Zaphod is incorrectly rumored to have been kidnapped. In reality, he’s traveling across space looking for a special computer that was built millions of years ago to formulate the “ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything.” (The answer was already determined: it is 42.) Ford and Arthur join in the expedition while the evil Vogons give chase.

The major problem with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that the subtle, quirky humor of Adams’ novel doesn’t translate well to a big, expensive, special effects-laden production. The book was filled with offbeat punch lines and verbal witticisms that crept up on you. At times, you had to think for a minute before getting the joke. The movie, in contrast, clearly wants to be a big multiplex crowdpleaser. It emphasizes the story elements that can be played for slapstick, which is a betrayal of the material. During the moments where the film directly lifts dialogue from the novel, the presence of CGI grandeur simply undermines the humor. Things that were hilarious on the page are not funny at all on the screen. It’s a fundamental discrepancy between substance and style. Putting this way-left-of-center humor in a middle-of-the-road Hollywood blockbuster wannabe is like having someone play the kazoo in Carnegie Hall.

It does not help matters that the actors – while talented – are almost uniformly wrong for their parts. Only Martin Freeman seems like a good choice. The others range from odd (Mos Def as Ford Prefect? Huh?) to ambivalent (Zooey Deschanel as Trillian? Eh.) to downright wacky. In this last instance, I’m talking about Sam Rockwell, whom I typically like. He was great in Matchstick Men and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He was even good in Charlie’s Angels. Here though, he overplays a character who’s even meant to be overplayed. Rockwell makes the bad decision to play Zaphod Beeblebrox with the voice of George W. Bush. (Oh, how I wish I were kidding, but I swear that’s who it sounded like to me.) The humor here should be played absolutely straight but most of the performers – especially Rockwell and John Malkovich, who cameos – play it like they’re trying to be funny. It gives everything an air of desperation.

The really amazing bad thing about the film is that, despite having a best-selling novel to follow, it really has no plot. In its desire to force non-stop wackiness upon the audience, the picture loses sight of story and characterization. It just kind of meanders from one thing to the next. As I sat in my seat, I came to the unsettling realization that I was often struggling to remember what I had seen only moments before; the movie is so aimless that it’s hard to follow. There’s no central thrust at work. In many respects, it feels like big chunks are missing.

There are a few brief moments here and there (mostly in the early scenes) that show some potential, and I liked Marvin the robot, although I wish he’d had more to do. But the bottom line is that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a massive disappointment. The filmmakers, including director Garth Jennings, had a brilliant novel to work with. They appear to have worked hard at screwing it up for the big screen.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is rated PG for thematic elements, action and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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