MOVIE REVIEW: “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” (2005)

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While good movies are always the thing you’re hoping for when you make a film, we here at Republibot are well aware of the joys that only a really bad film can bring. Good movies may be a dime a dozen, but a truly bad film is forever, right? I mean, better to know excellence or awfulness than to be one of those timid souls who know neither defeat nor victory. My apologies to Teddy Roosevelt for paraphrasing him like that, but it’s true. A really good bad film has an unpredictable quality that no masterpiece can ever aspire to. As The Tick once told Arthur, “Sanity is a one trick pony, but when you’re good and crazy - hoo boy! - the sky’s the limit!” So be good if you’ve got the chops for it, but bad is definitely easier and its very nature allows you to blow the bell curve and subvert the format in unpredictable ways. Be great, or be awful, whichever you’ve got in you - we’re surprisingly nonjudgmental here - but don’t every me mediocre!

Thust he worst thing about “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” movie isn’t that it’s bad, no. That’s a simple, passing badness that is easily dulled with time and eventually forgotten. No, the worst thing about this movie is that it’s the exact species of mediocre movie - specifically hand crafted and meticulously tooled – to appeal to nitwits. Not just any nitwits, either, but the exact kind of nitwits who are extremely evangelical about their nitwitery: the kinds of people who ask you what you thought of the movie, and when you reply, simply and rationally, that it was bad, they will then accuse you of ‘not getting it’ and explain, in nauseating detail, exactly how and why it was great. Yes, friends, the great pain of this movie was in knowing while I was watching its bland, noncommittal kind of badness that it had the power to reach out and annoy me for the rest of my life via pointless and endless conversations with artistically clueless-yet-insistent mouthbreathers next to whom the most rabid and compulsive of trekie would seem an urbane chick magnet by comparison.

The only other movie I can think of that annoyed me this much and in the same way was the also amazingly bad “Return of the Jedi” (1983), which people have been trying to convince me for twenty-six years – unsuccessfully, I might add – is not a cold-hearted attempt to mass-market teddy bears to the American public, but, rather is the high water mark of speculative fiction in cinema. The prequels made this a somewhat easier sell for them. Now all they have to argue is that it’s not the worst of the bunch.

Think I’m wrong? Seriously, I have very unpleasant memories of seeing this movie when it first came out, and this is based entirely on the crowd. I’ll spare you my reminiscences from opening night, but suffice to say that I’m the kind of guy who got beat up a lot as a kid for liking SF (Deservedly, it must be said), and yet even *I* wanted to murder the people in the audience around me. The movie got a standing ovation when the closing credits rolled, much to the surprise of myself and my wife, both of whom loved the books – and the BBC Radioplays – when we were teenagers.

“So what does any of this matter?” you ask. Well, time has a way of dulling old wounds, so I’m mentioning it to point out that any good word of mouth you may hear about this film should perhaps be viewed in the larger context of the evangelical nature of fans. The first book came out thirty years ago, to huge public acclaim, and for good reason: it was funny as hell. It, and to a lesser degree, its four sequels, were a huge influence on our outlooks, senses of humors, and polite disregard for authority. The fans – and I include myself in that set – had been waiting a quarter century to see it on the big screen. Need I mention that these are mostly Science Fiction geeks? (And I include myself in that set as well)

Now, despite the fact that the books were written without any intention of their eventually being filmed, and despite the fact that many Hollywood types have looked at the material and declared it “Unfilmable”, and despite the fact that Douglas Adams himself – author of all the novels – spent ten years trying to wrestle the material into shape for a screenplay, and was unable to do it, despite all that the fans really wanted to see it on the big screen. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but there seems to be a subset of fans around my own age who don’t seem able to fully accept a book – no matter how good – until it’s been made into a crappy, dumbed-down Special Effects Spectacular. It’s almost as though the book – no matter how good – is merely a tease, and they can’t get to the …ehm…satisfaction of the story unless it’s predigested, sanitized, and thrown up on a wall in a dark room for them. Perhaps they simply like having their tastes validated, I don’t know. I blame it on Star Wars, however: Most of these types of fans that I’ve talked to trace their fanishness for all things SF back to that movie. Make of that what you will.

So this was a movie that wasn’t really made because anybody had a grand vision of it, it was made simply to appease the constant nagging of fans. It’s easy to forget this now, years after it released and bombed, but for months afterwards people came up to me raving about it and demanding I go see it again and again and again. I grumbled, picked up my murderin’ shovel, and walked away. People don’t generally continue to bug me when I’ve go the murderin’ shovel handy. Over time, I kind of began to wonder if my memories of the movie were simply tainted by the terrible, terrible audience I saw it with.

“How bad could it be?“ I wondered. I re-watched it recently. Stupid, stupid, stupid mistake, which brings us to the actual ‘review’ portion of this review:

The movie is not a complete disaster – it could have been much worse, but, Lord, it really isn’t very good. Without giving any real spoilers, the movie more or less follows the basic progression of the book up through the point where Arthur and Ford end up on the Heart of Gold. At this point, somewhere around 36 to 40 minutes into the movie, the screenplay completely diverges from any previous version of the story# and goes off in its own direction.

This is pretty much of a mistake, because the laughs stop at about the same time, and the entire second act, aside from a bit of humorous slapstick which we’ve already seen in the commercials, and which is lifted from Gulliver’s 3rd Travel anyway, is mostly humor-free. There are some things that sound funny in description, but in actual execution they aren’t particularly so, which might be forgiven if they were entertaining, or at least interesting, but they are not. In his review over on Planet Magrathea.Com, J.K. Simpson refers to these kinds of things as “Jokeoids” – “Things which have the same basic shape as a joke, but are not at all funny.” I’d pretty much go along with that. The second act is mostly a breeding grounds for “Jokeoids,” and some recycled bits of Swift. But as the entire Hitchhikers Guide has been in large part geared towards recycling Swift, I’ll forgive them that.

It’s harder to forgive all the stuff they gutted from the film, however, and most of that is in this section. Have you been waiting your whole life to see the Disaster Area concert? Well, you won’t see it here. How about Eccentrica Gallumbits, the famous triple-breasted whore? Nope, she’s gone too. How about Ford turning into a penguin? Nope, gone. Infinite number of monkeys? Gone. The talking doors aboard the Heart of Gold? Nope, gone. Eddy the Shipboard Computer’s backup personality? No. Ford, Zaphod and Trillian exploring Magrathea? No. Any mention of Veet Voojagig, the Biros, Dentrassi, or the Guide Entry about Earth? Nope. Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses? Absent. Shooty and Bang Bag? Likewise absent. Time Travel? Not a bit of it. The Golgafrinchin B-ark, or anything at all about telephone sanitizers and the captain who won’t get out of the bath? Arthur’s amazement when he realizes he’s standing on another planet? Gone. For that matter, any the books’ very real sense of amazement, adventure, wonder, or fun? Not a chance. All of this is gone to make room for the Vice President of the Galaxy, and some utterly useless scenes with John Malkovich.

Things begin to get back on track again around an hour and ten or fifteen minutes into the film, which we’ll call “The Third Act”, though the film isn’t structured coherently enough for there to be a solid delineation between the messy-and-useless second act and the third, but, to be fair, that’s a problem inherent in the book as well. As Linear Narratives go, the book isn’t nearly as bad as Tristram Shandy or Catch-22, but it’s still utterly inimical to a straightforward storytelling. This is, of course, a large part of its charm as a book, but from a screenwriting point of view, it’s a super-pain to work with, as Adams himself was to find. Anyway, in ‘The Third Act’ we return to the ‘normal’ Hitchhiker’s story, “Already in progress” as it were. We end up on Magrethia, and the movie gets funny again. Not hilariously funny, mind you, but slightly-better-than-amusing, and the acting is a bit more amped up on the whole. In fact, the scene where Slartibartfast gives Arthur a tour of the planet factory is so wonderful it’s like it came out of a completely different movie entirely, and for a few minutes we get more than a glimmer of what a great movie this could have been in the hands of anyone who’d had a clue.

Then we get to the ending, which sucks. Now, even if the movie had been slavishly devoted to the book, following it in intricate detail, the ending still would have sucked. This is because the ending of the novel itself sucks. In fact, it doesn’t even really have an ending, it just stops, abruptly, with Arthur and Ford stranded on earth a million years in the past. This is a failing that even the author admitted was pretty galling, and obviously it’s completely wrong for a movie. The new ending, which replaces the literary one, isn’t really much of an improvement, however. It’s just sort of a fake and forced confrontation, with an abrupt resolution, and a fake upbeat ending which sets the stage for a sequel, which, thank you God, it’s pretty clear will never happen at this late date.

Now, I’m not particularly upset that they didn’t follow the book more closely, because I understand a thing or three about how movies are made, and I realize that slavish devotion to the written word is not always good. Books have lots and lots and lots of pages, whereas most screenplays are only about 120 or so, double spaced, so you have to leave quite a bit out. I understand, and that’s fine. That’s why most Hollywood types making SF films prefer to work from a Short Story, rather than a novel. I also understand that a movie, no matter how good, is not a book, and if it’s based on a novel then at best it can function as a homage to said novel. I understand that some things are invariably going to be cut from filming, some characters will be removed, reduced, conflated, or, in some cases, completely made up and introduced into a story they never before inhabited. I get all that, and I’m mostly cool with it.

What I don’t pretend to understand, however, is why they’d spend a bazillion dollars making this movie, and then completely abandon a third of the story not, apparently, because of time or budgetary constraints, but rather because they wanted to tell *a completely different new story.* I’ve heard it said that much of the new middle act is actually based on an extended sequence that Adams thought up and worked into his various failed scripts to turn the book into a movie. Ok, fine, it may be. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s junk, however. I mean, come on, the man spent a decade writing and re-writing the same film, and was never able to completely grab hold of it. No one liked his scripts, from what I can see, so why would anyone feel compelled to use something he thought up in 2004, if it was considered un-funny claptrap in 1995? It makes no sense to me.

Understand that I really love Douglas Adams. He was a genuinely interesting guy who wrote some genuinely great stuff, led a genuinely interesting life, and didn’t really screw anyone over too much prior to his death. He gave thought-provoking entertainment to tens of millions of people. He seems to have been a good husband and father, was always a font of interesting ideas, and had one hell of an impressive funeral. He was a great and unique talent who will be sorely missed, and he died way way way the hell too young. But had he lived to be a hundred, he would not have been able to wrestle his book into a movie.

Again: I love the guy. I have read all his books, most of them several times. He was not the worlds’ best writer, however. Not by a long shot. He started out writing sketch comedy, and his books were all basically series of sketches strung together by the merest notion of story. What’s more, as celebrity and (What should have been) middle age caught up with him, he seemed to have more-or-less lost interest in writing at all, as anyone who read “The Salmon of Doubt” can attest to. His stuff worked precisely because it was so awkward and abrupt in places, but I’m not going to whine and moan about deviating from the story. I am however going to complain about the complete un-funny muddle that is the second act of this movie. Regardless of whether Adams thought it up, as some claim, or if it was conceived of in the talentless hack brain of the guy who wrote this waste of celluloid (Who’s biggest hit to date was writing the similarly useless “Chicken Run”), it doesn’t ultimately matter because it’s simply not funny, goes nowhere, and does nothing. It’s junk. Its only purpose is to set up a subplot that is abruptly abandoned and never resolved in the film. Sloppy writing.

The look of the film is odd. It consciously apes Terry Gilliam’s style, but, of course, without the humor and more “Gilliamesque” qualities. It’s consciously imitating Brazil (1984) and Twelve Monkeys (1996) in style, but direction, humor, and story are solidly sub-Eric the Viking (1989). Frankly, the movie might have been good if they’d simply given it to Gilliam and let him run with it, but instead we’re given a Gilliam-free, vaguely Gilliam-looking movie lacking in subtext or even coherence.

The Guide Entries themselves are done as CGI animations by a company called “Shynola”, but they’re not nearly so memorable as the faux-CGI animations from the TV series, and are mostly in a style that’s now commonly used in commercials for investment firms and internet service providers. It’s competent, but hard to get worked up about. There is, by the way, an outtake from the film stuck into the closing credits. It’s the bit about the Vl’hurg/G’guvant battle fleet that comes to earth and gets eaten by a dog. Interestingly, this outtake makes reference to yet another presumed outtake, since it quotes Arthur as saying something he didn’t actually say in the movie. One gets the feeling that they shot a hell of a lot of stuff for this film before realizing it wasn’t funny, and chopped it out again.

Acting is kind of all over the place. As Arthur, Martin Freeman is mostly a complete waste. He does nothing particularly funny or notable, and his only really good bit is when he’s trying to hype himself up to go through a dimensional portal, and snaps at Marvin. “Did youuuuuuuuuuuuuu,” he hisses in impotent rage, and for an instant he was actually interesting, but it abates pretty quickly. He might be a good actor, but he’s wasted here. Ford Prefect is played by rapper Dante Terrell Smith, AKA “Mos Def.” One gets the feeling he was probably the first person cast in this movie. Some have raised eyebrows at Ford being black, but this didn’t bother me at all. He’s rather awkward and uncomfortable-seeming throughout most of the film, however, and his mannerisms are a bit too self-conscious. I would have expected a rapper to be a bit more charismatic. He’s not terrible, though, and on a few scenes - like when he kind of grinningly tells Arthur that most of Zaphod’s hunches are pretty good - he kind of shines. I’d have liked to see the actor in some other parts, I feel like he could be exceptional, but it’s all rough edges and a lack of cohesion here, which I blame entirely on the material.

The biggest disappointment is Sam Rockwell as Galactic President Zaphod Beblebrox. He plays the character as a kind of unfortunate Greg Almond impression. It’s not good, not funny, not interesting, pretty much just like most of the film. Fans of the book will be quite disappointed to know that Zaphods’ two heads are done in perhaps the stupidest way possible, and that for better than half the film, he actually only has one head and two arms. Evidently he lost one midway through the film, but no one commented on it at the time. He just blurts out later on that he can’t fly the ship very well with only two hands. Editing is kind of all over the place in this film, so obviously there’s a scene missing earlier that screws up the continuity. Probably a bunch of scenes, actually. Suffice it so say that Zaphod looks dopier and acts even less compelling than he did in the old TV series.

Zooey Deschanel is pretty good as Trisha “Trillian” MacMillan I’ve always found her ever so slightly off-putting – there’s a “Weird Girl” kind of oddness about her – but I think they were kind of counting on that this time out, whereas in “Elf” a couple years ago it really worked against her. Here, however, it kinda’ works in her favor. When we first meet her, she’s kind of desperate and overly-engaging, simultaneously appealing and off-putting, and she’s the most human of the characters in the movie, despite being kind of odd throughout. Of course even this is qualified praise: Trillian has always been the biggest cipher in the stories, the least-defined character, and neither writer nor actresses have ever known quite what to do with her. In the radioplay, she gets forcibly married off to some extraterrestrial Shriners or something. In the TV show, she was an utterly annoying bimbo. In most of the books, she’s just sort of there, and we only get a vague feeling for what kind of person she is in the final one, and even there it’s not the ‘Real’ Trillian, rather it’s a Trillian from an alternate timeline. So high marks to Miss Deschanel for finally giving the character a bit of definition, but it’s still a bit unclear exactly what manner of fish she is.

Bill Nighy is flat out brilliant as Slartibartfast, and not enough good things can be said about him. His scenes in the movie all work, and they work entirely because of him. He’s fantastic.

Among the newly-created characters, we have an utterly useless Vice President Questular Rontok played by Anna Chancellor, and Humma Kavula played by John Malkovich in one of Elton John’s old hand-me-down wigs. Questular is an utterly useless character who has no real purpose in the movie other than to moon after Zaphod with whom she’s apparently in love. Humma Kavula is the guy who ran against Zaphod in the election for Galactic President, and ran a smear campaign called “Don’t Vote For Stupid.” I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but with Zaphod being vaguely southern, it’s hard not to see some already-very-dated jokes (or Jokeoids) about the ’04 Bush campaign. I could very well be imagining things that aren’t actually there in this case, but in any event the Beblebrox/Kavula rivalry is every bit tedious enough to have been intended as a Kerry/Bush gag, even if it isn’t.

A few words on Kavula: He’s a humanoid with a lot of cybernetic replacement parts and a bad wig. No explanation for this is ever given. He was a pirate, ran for president, but after loosing the election, decided to become a religious leader. He wants stuff, but for no explained reason. In short, Kavula serves mostly as a laborious point of exposition for our characters to get the deus ex machina that will allow the movie’s crappy and forced finale. These scenes are all kinda’ awkward and stagey, presumably because Kavula is more CGI than human, and on top of that the editing for these sequences are kinda’ awkward. Rumor is that this sequence was initially much longer, but have been pared down to the bare minimum, as they tested badly with early audiences. I imagine they’d test badly with modern audiences, too.

It should be mentioned that the music in the movie is pretty horrible, and I think this was intentional. It’s all out of key, and flat, almost like a parody of a typical space movie soundtrack. Another of those pesky Jokeoids, no doubt.

And then it ends. It could have been worse. It was not a good movie, it was not the worst movie ever made. Instead, it’s a great big wasted opportunity that wanders aimlessly through the trackless nothingness that is neither good nor bad, and of course as a result of never really trying to be great, nor embracing it’s inner awfulness, it gives us nothing to care about. Not a damn thing.

In the end, this movie is called “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy”, but in a very real sense, that book still really hasn’t been filmed. This waste of celluloid is really just a place holder for that hypothetical eventual good movie.

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