Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It’s been a long enough wait for the Hitchhiker’s movie: was it worth it? Put bluntly: no, not really.

It’s not that it’s a terrible movie; the effects are nice, Martin Freeman’s not a bad Arthur Dent, Mos Def is a surprisingly effective Ford Prefect; it’s just that it’s nowhere as good as it could have been.

The long, and savage, review at Planet Magrathea pretty much nails how I felt about it. I saw four, main problems:

1. It steps on the jokes. Part of what made Douglas Adams so funny was that his jokes were sustained flights of whimsy; the movie throws away, or (worse) truncates many of these.

The first ten minutes squanders jokes like crazy. “I had to go to the basement” isn’t funny by itself; it becomes funny when absurdity upon absurdity is built on it: “the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘beware of the leopard’.”

Ford bribing the workmen with beer to save Arthur’s house isn’t funny; Ford convincing the foreman to lie in front of the bulldozers in Arthur’s place is.

Ford’s advice to the barman stands: “Should I put a paper bag over my head, or something?” / “If you like.” / “Will it help?” / “Not really, no.” But it’s weakened by the loss of the banter that precedes it: “Arsenal without a chance, then?” / “No, it’s just that the world’s about to end.”

2. It steps on the characters. Marvin was the best-loved character in the original radio series; here he’s wasted, with many of his best lines cut. Gone is all the byplay between Arthur, the wide-eyed space tourist, and Marvin, the weary depressive: “I’ve seen it, it’s rubbish”, “can’t stand oceans”. We’re never given a chance to care about him.

Ford’s underdeveloped; once we get to the Heart of Gold, his role in the film is basically done.

And Zaphod’s been turned from a raving egotist with a knack for self-preservation to a nasty raving egotist. His self-interest should be funny, but here it’s cut with a meanness which makes him a deeply unlikable character.

3. The plot’s muddled. And God knows what anyone not familiar with it would make of it. What on earth is happening here? We start with a reasonable idea. Zaphod’s in search of the Ultimate Question, because being President of the Universe isn’t fame enough for him: find the Question and they’ll remember you forever.

But then spanner after spanner are thrown in: Zaphod’s also being pursued by the Vogon fleet; a visit to Humma Kavala results in a second, and irrelevant, “find-the-item” quest; we waste time on an entirely undramatic rescue on Vogsphere; and then there’s the whole will-she-won’t-she question of Arthur and Trillian. Ah.

4. Ultimately, the plot becomes a stereotypical Hollywood love story. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl to dashing alien; boy regains girl.

Well, crap. Arthur’s not supposed to be a romantic hero. Trillian’s supposed to be the “very nice girl who he completely fails to get off with”, not the love of his life as the movie would have it. Arthur’s a permanently bemused Englishman in a tweed dressing-gown; his transformation into white knight at the end of the movie is unlikely and just plain wrong.

Overall, it all feels a little like Men In Black, but without the snappy jokes and the charm. The main characters, and the dialogue, are never given room to breathe; we’re always rushing on to the next scene, the next celebrity cameo. There’s no coherent story; no particularly satisfying resolution.

It’s all a little disappointing: this is probably the only, and so the best, Hitchhiker’s movie we’ll get. And it left me feeling that with a little more care, a little less pace, and a little more respect of the original scripts, it could have been so much better than it was.

1½/5. See it if you simply have to, but don’t expect much.