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The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy:
One Fan's Refutation

  Editor's Note: We ran a preview of this film a couple of months back, which was highly positive. Contributor Andrew Simchik, having now seen the movie, would like his say as a long-time fan...

As is now well recorded, there is a movie adaptation out based on that wholly remarkable book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This has made a lot of people very angry and is generally regarded as a bad move.

My girlfriend and I grabbed some friends and went to see this adaptation. I didn't expect to love it, and I didn't expect to hate it, and both expectations were fully met. It could have and should have been much better; it could have been and thankfully wasn't much worse. If I'd gone to see it alone I probably would have told you it was awful, but I didn't, and my girlfriend really liked it. This last fact truly surprised me and gave credence to the hypothesis that my negative reaction had a lot to do with being a fan of the series in its earlier forms.

So while my overall reaction is negative, to be fair, I'm going to post the top 10 things I liked about the movie and the top 10 things I hated, so it all evens out. My short opinion is this:

  • If you have never read the books or heard the radio series, you should see this movie first. You won't have any idea how good it could be, and you'll have some wonderful visuals to take with you into the other versions, and there won't be anywhere to go but up. The best analogy I can make with this movie is David Lynch's Dune: everyone agrees it's an overacted, overcondensed mess, but I saw it before I ever read the books and I doubt I would have fallen in love with them without seeing Lynch's visually splendid, bizarre, enchanting (but disowned) take first. 

  • If you are already a fan, who are you kidding? You're going to want to see it anyway, so just get it over with.

    Top 10 Reasons I Enjoyed the Movie

    1. Opening with the dolphins. Very suited to the tone of the series. I was so glad it didn't start with space or something. They only flubbed part of the joke, too.

    2. The Book. Stephen Fry is just reading it straight but he's a worthy successor to the brilliant Peter Jones. The graphics are terrific, and the jokes are relatively unexpurgated. I'm concerned
    that people who don't know this series will wonder why it's named after a book that's tangential to the story, but that's my only complaint.

    3. The theme. Not the "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish" song -- that's in the next list. I mean the instrumental theme that introduced each radio episode, the one they play after the story's gotten underway in the movie. Good on them for keeping that in.

    4. Ford Prefect. I have serious complaints about the way Mos Def mumbled his lines, but I have similar complaints about nearly everyone else. Otherwise I actually thought he was brilliant; the most authentically alien Ford Prefect we've ever really seen or heard, thoroughly weird and charming all at once. Hideously underused, unfortunately, but they did add a good flashback (how he and Arthur first meet). There are even a couple of mildly homoerotic moments between him and Arthur. Fun all around, really.

    5. Paper bag callback. As part of a brief montage during Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz's speech to the Earth, we see that the folks in Arthur's local pub have decided to lie down with paper bags over their heads. Great callback, and the sort of visual joke you can't really pull off in a book or radio series. Just barely beats out the lightning-fast Gag Halfrunt moment because it's funny to non-fans too.

    6. The effects of the Improbability Drive. It's understandable that they condensed the bits about Ford being "a perfectly safe penguin, and my colleague here is rapidly running out of limbs!" into the two of them becoming sofas (my girlfriend said, "no, stay sofas!" and meant it nicely), and this really gets fun halfway through the movie when the Heart of Gold materializes as a ball of knitting and the crew are rendered for a short time as animated yarn characters. I will pay someone to knit me those. SO. CUTE.

    7. Huggable Marvin. He's almost disturbingly huge but otherwise totally adorable. An excellent design choice, marketable as hell, and believe me I'm first in line for the stuffed toy or even the action figure.

    8. Worshipping the Great Green Arkleseizure. A throwaway joke from the book becomes a short but pretty funny church scene. "Amen" becomes "Achoo," to which John Malkovich's creepazoid pseudoPope Humma Kavula replies, "Bless you." That's pretty brilliant.

    9. Slartibartfast. I wish he'd delivered some of the lines more crisply, but Bill Nighy is always enjoyable and as Slartibartfast doubly so. Best of all, they kept one of the best exchanges from
    Arthur's encounter with the fjord designer (paraphrased): "I'd rather be happy than right any day." "And are you? Happy, I mean." "Not really, no. That's where it falls down a bit, you see."

    10. The Earth Mark II. There's a point near the end where it seems like Arthur is going to just get his old house back on the replacement Earth. This actually would have been a terrific way to make the story self-contained. It's not quite this simple, of course, but the suggestion, combined with the fantastic and hilarious visuals of the second Earth being built, easily makes the top 10 list.

    Top 10 Reasons I Disliked the Movie

    A lot of these were things that my girlfriend also disliked, so I know they're not just fanboy whining.

    1. Zaphod W. Beeblebush. If I grit my teeth hard and squint until the vein in my temple throbs, I can see the cleverness of having Sam Rockwell play Zaphod as Robin Williams doing George W. Bush. It fits with Adams' bits about the role of the Galactic President being not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. And he does look the part, and the voice and attitude aren't too far off. But he comes off as such a complete idiot that the loss of one of his heads doesn't seem to alter his character appreciably, and most of the time he flails at random with no clear motivation or stable personality. So one of the best characters in the original story is thoroughly wasted. The treatment of the two heads is so ridiculous that I would rather they had just ignored this inconvenient character trait (it's usually irrelevant anyway), but it could have floated if everything else had worked.

    2. Too much of the Vogons. I get that they probably wanted to get a lot of value out of the Henson suits they made, and they were forced to carry most of the "isn't bureaucracy stupid and hilarious?" motif that recurs in Adams' oeuvre. But they're pretty tiresome, and it would have been nice to see more of the kaleidoscopic variety of alien forms (if only to help reinforce another Adams motif, "no matter what they look like, most aliens are a lot like the people you meet every day"). The multitorsoed Japanese schoolgirl was, I'm sorry, kind of dumb.

    3. Random motivations and loose ends. Do you believe Zaphod wanted to find the Ultimate Question? I might have, if the script and Sam Rockwell had sold it; after all, in the books he wants to find out who rules the universe. But why does he want it so badly he lets Humma Kavula hold one of his heads hostage, then never goes back to retrieve the head? Does Kavula not care that he never gets the gun? Why even include this plot element if you're not going to resolve it until the next movie (if ever)? The structure of the radio series is comic sketches linked by comic monologues; we could very easily have had that same structure in this movie, but instead the plot was stitched together by a blind tailor with a drinking problem.

    4. Deep Thought. Hard to believe they could screw this up. But they rushed it in terms of script and direction, Helen Mirren rushed it in terms of delivery, and so another of the funniest and most meaningful sequences in the whole books is, I'm guessing, lost on the uninitiated. The design is cute, though, almost as good as Marvin's. If only we knew why Deep Thought watches cartoons (a cheap, meaningless non-joke) or guards the Point-of-View Gun.

    5. Trillian & Arthur (tie). Arthur is well-cast but unsympathetically written and acted. He's a plausible Everyman in the radio series and the books, like many of us interested primarily in
    the comforts of one's own home, a nice cup of tea, and knowing one's planet will still be there in the morning. Here he's a blustering coward with delusions of grandeur and the hormones and common sense of a 14-year-old, proving once again why everyone likes Han Solo better
    than Luke Skywalker (unfortunately, see above regarding Zaphod, our should-be Han Solo). The Arthur fans know and love would have suggested Cornwall for a date because running off to Madagascar on a moment's notice is a romantic whim; a reasonable person reads a guidebook or two and packs proper supplies instead of blundering into the forest like a loud stupid tourist. This Arthur just seems small-minded and parochial.

    But Trillian is just as bad. Zooey Deschanel looks the part (dark-haired, pretty, not a complete bimbo) and honestly I thought she made the most of what she had to work with. Unfortunately, what she had to work with sucked. It wasn't just the missed opportunity for this character to finally get the respect Adams set her up to deserve (as originally written she has a "degree in astrophysics and another in mathematics," so as she puts it it's either run off with Zaphod to see the galaxy or "back to the dole queue on Monday"). It's that there's really nothing to fill the void, and she has to make us believe that her best romantic options were, at one point before the Earth exploded, the utterly vapid Zaphod or the utterly wretched Arthur, and that choosing between them is her highest priority. See below.

    6. Unbreakable Marvin. In the books Marvin is almost indestructible; a laser to the head is not a more serious problem than the pain in all the diodes down his left side. But that's no big deal. What bothered me is that they clumsily show him "dead" (the lights in his eyes go out) just to tug at your heartstrings, and then with no explanation or provocation whatsoever have him come back to life and somehow pick up the gun with no one noticing. Was he recharging? Temporarily "unconscious"? Who knows? It just said in the script that someone should get hurt here so we could have a little emotional dip and then a rise again when he turns out to be okay after all. Awwww! It could have been any of the characters and it still would have been stupid, stupid, stupid.

    7. "So Long, and Thanks For All the Sk8er Bois." Do you hate it when this really clever line will come up in a song, and you think, "wow, brilliant!" and then it's ruined because the singer realizes how brilliant it is and repeats it over and over? Like in the Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan," when Morrissey sings "in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera" (hilarious) and then proceeds to vamp that line into the ground? That was the effect, for me, of opening
    with a great bit like the "second most intelligent species on Earth" dolphin stuff and then making their final message to humanity into a stupid little ditty. I didn't realize until later that they'd ripped off the verse melody from Avril Lavigne's "Complicated," adding injury to insult.

    And don't get me started on the incidental music score. Incidental music is like perfume or cologne: figure out the absolute minimum you think you need to get you through the next two hours, and then use a quarter of that. Most movies these days are like that over-made-up middle-aged woman who sits next to you on the plane smelling like she just did ten laps in an Olympic-sized pool of Chanel No. 5.

    8. The tone. This wasn't as far off as it could have been. But it was off. Much of the problem was caused by the next two points, to be fair, and much of the rest of it was caused by the demands of making a movie out of a serial. It felt to me like the difference between the original Dr. Who series and the TV movie with Paul McGann; in both cases it seemed as though the Britishness of the original was being downplayed in the later adaptation. This goes beyond accents and into worldviews. Adams wasn't trying to write funny science fiction, any more than George Orwell was setting out to write a dramatic story about farm animals. Adams was writing satire, and science fiction happened to be the ideal stage for that satire. The points of the satire -- life is amazing, inscrutable, random, and ridiculous; culture is culture, petty, bureaucratic, greedy, but charmingly so and mostly harmless; the best things in life are food, drink, and a comfortable place to sleep -- are not completely lost in the movie, but they are far weaker than they ought to be.

    9. The dialogue. Contrary to what I'd read, they didn't cut out all the jokes. But they cut out many of them, and flubbed a lot more through needless editing and horrible delivery. The dialogue is by far the best part of the original series, as you might imagine, because Adams was a comedy writer and because he mercilessly edited and reedited each radio episode until it was perfect. Granted, each episode was 30 minutes long, but the first four episodes cover the whole of the movie. Why they had to snip lines and parts of lines that would have taken mere seconds to speak in full I've no idea. However, most of what they used instead was meaningless grunting ("look out," "uh-oh, what?", that sort of thing) and the delivery was as far from crisp as it gets. There were exchanges I literally could not understand because the actors rushed and mumbled them. There were a few witty new bits (Trillian's "it won't work on me, I'm already a woman," for example), but most of it just fell flat to me. The original dialogue is usually as honed, set-em-up-and-knock-em-down as the Simpsons, and I have to figure that even new audiences could see that this wasn't like that at all.

    10. The romance. I don't think anyone who went to see this with me liked the romance between Trillian and Arthur that took over the story. There was even a totally sketched-in, meaningless thing between Zaphod and Vice President Questular. I'm at a loss for words (finally, you're thinking) but let me just say: no chemistry, no plausibility, no point. Romance is fine in a satire like Candide because Candide is a would-be romantic hero. Arthur Dent is a philosophical hero, and the philosophical tone is all but completely wrecked by the Hollywood insistence on bringing romance to the forefront of the story. Think carefully about the role of romance in two of the best-scripted films I've seen in the last ten years, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. It's there, but it's part of life and not the focus of the story or the reason for the heroes' personalities. That's the role it should have played here as well. Titanic this ain't.

    Andrew Simchik


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