"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space."
That quote, from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, sums up the classic bestseller as well as any—silly, philosophical, and deeply rooted in science fiction. What began life as a comedic radio program in the late '70s soon became a celebrated novel before evolving into a "five-book trilogy" that sold more than 15 million books. People continue to cherish and discover Hitchhiker's Guide (or h2g2 to diehard fans) even today. I was surprised by the age range at the screening I attended, with 10-year-old children blurting out the answers to pre-show trivia questions about the book.
Though Hitchhiker's Guide came to life as a low-budget BBC mini-series in the '80s, Adams had envisioned a cinematic adaptation for years. He finally signed a deal with Disney in 1998 to develop the feature, only to die of a heart attack shortly after finishing the second draft in 2001. Now roughly 25 years after its original publishing, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy finally comes to life on the big screen, written by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, whose previous screenplay credits include Chicken Run and James and the Giant Peach. (The latter is also the brother of acclaimed songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick.)
Though filmmakers have appropriately analogized Hitchhiker's Guide to sci-fi as Austin Powers to the James Bond franchise, it's best to think of it as Doctor Who meets Monty Python. The story centers on the worst day in the life of neurotic English everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman of the BBC's "The Office"). It's not enough that his house is about to be demolished to make room for a new bypass. Minutes later, with extended irony, it turns out the earth will be similarly destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route by Vogons—grotesquely bulbous aliens that in this film resemble overly bureaucratic Brits.
Fortunately for him, Arthur also discovers that his friend Ford Prefect (rapper Mos Def from The Italian Job) is a space alien and travelogue writer for the "wholly remarkable intergalactic bestseller" for which this film is named. The two narrowly escape planetary destruction by hitching a ride with the Vogons, only to later chance aboard the Heart of Gold, a starship uniquely equipped with an Improbability Drive that bypasses all that complicated hyperspace nonsense by randomly teleporting throughout the universe. That would explain why the President of the Galaxy—and Ford's two-headed semi-cousin—Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell of Matchstick Men) is aboard. Or why Arthur's one-time romantic interest Trillian (Zooey Deschanel of Elf) is with him.
Pursued by the Vogons, the foursome embarks on a quest to find the meaning of life—"Good for publicity," winks Zaphod. Along the way, they seek aid from Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), a religious cult leader and onetime political rival of Zaphod. They later mount a daring rescue for one of their own on the Vogon homeworld, and eventually discover the ultimate purpose and fate of Earth.
If the plot seems overly complicated and hard to follow, in the words of the Guide, "Don't panic!" This is all intended to be a fun and playful romp through space laced with action, satire, and humor. The tone of the film is established perfectly from the get-go as the dolphins (Earth's second most intelligent species, according to the book/movie) deliver a final message to mankind (third on the intelligence list) via a hilarious and catchy Broadway-styled song-and-dance number before mysteriously high-tailing it off the planet. To say Hitchhiker's Guide has a unique vision is an understatement. Not many films can boast such an opening, the destruction of Earth, the latest innovation to sliced bread, and the unexpectedly simple answer to "life, the universe, and everything."
The cast has fun with their roles, even if they are at times underdeveloped. The best is Freeman, stuck in his pajamas and bathrobe for the whole film, behaving a bit like a British Martin Short. Mos Def also does a fine job with Ford Prefect, playing both cool and clueless in a way that quickly endears him, but like the book, his character unfortunately fades into the background as the movie progresses. Likewise, Rockwell has fun making Zaphod the annoying hipster jock, but the role is neutered in a new subplot that forces him to sacrifice half his brain. Deschanel merely walks through the role of Trillian as the love interest for both Zaphod and Arthur.
Faring much better are the non-humanoid characters. The Heart of Gold itself is designed to be chipper and friendly to everyone aboard, playing Eddie the onboard computer for laughs whenever he happily announces that the ship is in danger. The exception to the programmed perkiness is Marvin, the perpetually depressed android (enjoyably voiced by Alan Rickman) for whom everything is a terrific disappointment.
The film's highlights, though, are the "sidebars" involving the Guide. Taken verbatim from the book, they're glibly narrated pitch perfect by Stephen Fry with the laughs enhanced by vibrant and simple computer graphic visuals. These scenes are the most Python-esque, so be sure to stay through the end credits to catch one of the funniest Guide entries.
Director Garth Jennings makes an impressive (though sometimes disjointed) film debut after a long resume of commercials and music videos. Hitchhiker's Guide is filled with cool special effects, relying on CGI for the spaceship scenes. Both simplistic and imaginative, the creature design by Jim Henson's Workshop evokes the fun of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars. And the astronomical factory in the movie's final act is especially awe-inspiring in scope, giving new meaning to "beautifully designed."
Fans should know that the film does alter the story slightly by adding to it significantly. Unfortunately, it's exactly where the new material begins that the film's pacing sags for the middle third. It's intended to add some more action and drama to the story, and while there are still some funny bits (particularly on the Vogon homeworld), the stuff just isn't as rich as the original source material surrounding it. The movie also unnecessarily creates romance between Arthur and Trillian, adding heart but ultimately relying on the derivative and overused Hollywood theme of living bravely with no regrets. Still, it's more important to keep the spirit of the book than to be exact, and in that regard, Hitchhiker's Guide succeeds.
The big question is how will audiences respond to such an unusual film, with its seemingly polar mix of humor and sci-fi. American fans feared another dry BBC-styled adaptation with limited appeal. Brits loathed the idea of a dumbed-down Hollywood treatment that disrespects the source material. Fortunately, the filmmakers have found a happy medium that's smart and silly—visually impressive while still maintaining the wit of the book. Whether you prefer sight gags or satire, you're bound to laugh at something in this movie. How frequently is another matter entirely.
As for the film's content, to quote the Guide's two-word description of Earth, it's "mostly harmless." The action is kid friendly and the bad language is minimal. Though there is some alcohol consumption and mild sexual innuendo, Hitchhiker's Guide the movie is more wholesome than its literary ancestor.
Christian audiences are more likely to take issue with the deeper issues at the heart of the film. There's a sacrilegious church parody midway through, as well as casual references to the Big Bang, evolution, and the question of whether or not God exists. Some of this can be taken in multiple ways, however. At one point the Guide humorously tells us how God created the universe, and how everyone has come to regard this as a bad move ever since. Is this really saying that the Almighty made a mistake, or simply lamenting that the world/universe is flawed?
Some have said that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is about the meaning of life, and whether or not we can truly know the answer to it. Though Christians claim to have the answer based on what we believe and what Scripture teaches, there's a difference between knowing on fact and knowing on faith—and not everyone understands things on faith. This book/film was not written from a Christian worldview, though it does open the door to matters of faith by raising questions and laughing about it all.
But to get worked up over this film would be to miss the point. After all, how seriously can you take a story with singing dolphins, depressed robots, and multi-functional towels? Inconsistent pacing and unusually diverse humor prevent this from appealing to all tastes. Nevertheless, Hitchhiker's Guide is a lot of fun and something different than usual, poised to reach a broader audience with its silly and spirited tour of space—which is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, by the way.Discussion starters
- How the world will end is a subject of great debate, even among Christians. Is it possible to have a rational discussion about it, and what can we agree upon as believers?
- One of the film's themes is the matter of living life "too safe" at the expense of our dreams. How safe is too safe? When does living boldly become living recklessly? How do we overcome fear in our pursuits and how do we stay grounded in reality?
- One character states that he'd rather be happy than be right. How is this a wise perspective? How is it foolish? Which do you believe to be more in step with Christ's teachings and why?
- Given the choice between living your life over with the chance to correct past mistakes, or leaving it behind and moving forward, which would you choose?
- Do you believe there is life elsewhere in the universe? How is Earth initially regarded in the film, insignificant or important? Does this perspective change by the film's end? Compare and contrast this with what we believe as Christians.
- The story deals a lot with improbabilities and the role of chance in the universe. By the end, do you think that Adams was ultimately saying things happen by chance or by plan? Is it possible to believe both?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Hitchhiker's Guide is "mostly harmless" in its content, with some mild language, alcohol consumption, and some mild sexual innuendo. The action violence is standard sci-fi fare—laser guns, spaceship battles, and kidnappings, though the smallest of children might be scared by the prospect of Earth's destruction. There are also references to evolution, questioning the existence of God, and a rather sacrilegious worship service that combines the Big Bang with the idea of a Creator. Though not for all audiences and not written with a Christian audience in mind, the film presents an opportunity for larger than life discussions.
Photos © Copyright Touchstone Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/05/05
If ever a movie came equipped with a built-in "thumbs up," it's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It only takes about five minutes of screen time before our average joe hero, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), gets whisked away with from his disappointing life by an interstellar hitchhiker (Mos Def) and launched into close encounters of the ridiculous kind.
Director Garth Jennings' kaleidoscopic film is jam-packed with special effects, both of the cutting-edge digital variety and of the old-fashioned Jim Henson Creature Shop variety (wait until you meet the brilliantly grotesque bureaucrats called the Vogons), resulting in a sensational visual experience that is also populated with the liveliest, most comical sci-fi misfits since Galaxy Quest. There are laughs aplenty, many of them provoked by Stephen Fry, who plays the voice of the infamously handy pocket guide to space travel, and the smirking spontaneity of Sam Rockwell as the fashion-challenged President of the Galaxy.
But unlike Galaxy Quest, which became an audience favorite on the strength of its story as much as its stars and effects, Hitchhiker's feels more like a long, disjointed string of skits linked by awkward transitions. Things move so erratically and quickly that there's little chance to appreciate performances, identify themes, or care about the rather arbitrary plot.
But don't panic: As entertainment, the movie is "mostly harmless." It's never ponderous, and it never arrives at a "moral to the story." Occasional flashes of comic brilliance and high-spirited frivolity give us something of a sugar-rush. Ultimately, however, the emptiness at the film's core makes it a rather hollow moviegoing experience.
My full review is at Looking Closer.
Religious press critics disagree over three issues: Is the film funny? Is it faithful to Adams' style? Is it offensive?
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) declares, "This is all intended to be a fun and playful romp through space laced with action, satire, and humor … smart and silly—visually impressive while still maintaining the wit of the book. Whether you prefer sight gags or satire, you're bound to laugh at something in this movie."
He points out that Christian audiences may take offense at "a sacrilegious church parody … as well as casual references to the Big Bang, evolution, and the question of whether or not God exists." But he sees these things as available to interpretation. "To get worked up over this film would be to miss the point. After all, how seriously can you take a story with singing dolphins, depressed robots, and multi-functional towels?"
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) takes an entirely different tone with the film. "It's been a long time since I fell asleep in a movie. However, I sure had a good snooze during this one. And maybe I'm just not cool, but somehow, when the only people excited about seeing this film are all former potheads, it definitely makes you wonder. Having seen it, I'm now convinced that unless you are a super geek on an acid trip, it would be difficult to appreciate this film."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) was concerned about how the film would represent the books. "When it comes to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, tone is everything. [The movie's] not perfect, and it's sure to leave Adams' many diehard fans split on how well it captures the author's simultaneously sly and over-the-top wit. But no one's going to get very far arguing that this movie fails to entertain, or that it's not good-natured. It's certainly adoring of its source material."
And about the content that could offend Christians? Isaac says, "Not even for a millisecond while watching The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did I feel as if it was trying to dis God's miraculous creation of life, the universe, and everything. Instead, while too saturated with silliness to come out and say so, it makes moviegoers think about the real meaning of life. And if one has any sense at all of God's role in our existence, it triggers the thought that without Him, nothing much makes sense."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) makes similar comparisons, saying it's an "entertaining, if occasionally disjointed, potpourri of space adventure, absurdist philosophy and rib-tickling satire. Adams was an avowed atheist, but beyond the film's absurdist underpinnings—which could be interpreted as suggesting that the universe is ultimately meaningless—little of his personal disbelief leaks onto the screen."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) finds it somewhat unsatisfying. "What it's missing is the subversive commentary, the razor-edged deconstruction of human foibles. We get Adams the absurdist, but not Adams the provocateur." He concludes, "For moderate Adams fans who know enough to get the jokes but aren't emotionally invested enough to be outraged by the film's shortcomings, this Hitchhiker's is a worthwhile tour of Adams's riotous world."
But Josh Hurst (Reveal) finds it a perfect representation of Adams' personality. "It perfectly captures and preserves the spirit and the humor of its source material, ensuring that you won't see a crazier, more bizarre movie all year. Christian moviegoers may … be troubled by the film's empty philosophizing about life, the universe, and the meaning of it all, though, then again, such scenes could provoke some healthy questioning and discussion. These unfortunate storytelling lapses mean that, as a film Hitchhiker's Guide is at best mediocre, and the dry humor and strange plot keep its appeal rather limited."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) finds that the adaptation falls short. "What the film lacks is Adams' near giddiness when it comes to language. His books were delightful reads because of the way words or phrases were unexpectedly twisted and used. The film offers a bit of the same but relies too heavily on the visual elements which are nothing special."
Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) sums it up as "stupid acting, stupid writing, and stupid directing."
Mainstream critics are debating the Guide's merits as well.from Film Forum, 05/05/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The movie captures some of the book's easy-going goofiness, but relies too much on action to move the plot forward, which is not Adams' strong suit, nor is it the point of the novel. As a result, there are some painfully slow sections that drag the film down, intermixed with a few delightful realizations of Adams's fertile imagination. The film sparkles, however, when narrator Stephen Fry reads directly from Adams's entries in the Guide, accompanied by agreeably silly animated illustrations."
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