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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a sort of ray gun called The Point of View Gun, which, if fired upon someone, will make that person recognize the world from the shooter's perspective. The obvious (and wry) joke here is that the Point of View Gun must be man's ultimate weapon, because it promotes tolerance and understanding while other weapons only foster hate. It's used in a touching sequence where a space traveling Earth girl named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) uses the gun to bear her feelings. However, I think the P.O.V. Gun implies another joke that Douglas Adams, writer of the "Hitchhiker" book that thousands of sci-fi geeks swear by, has made less obvious: those who have never read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," or never dabbled in its limitless universe of comics, books, radio shows and other film projects, will need some sort of P.O.V. Gun to understand what's going on in this movie. First timers can admire the dry humor, savor the silliness, and marvel at the ingenuity of the creatures and galaxies on the screen, but without knowing anything about Adams' creative universe, Hitchhiker novices won't get the big picture.

I am one of these Hitchhiker novices, so for rabid Adams fans who may be reading this, stop now. You'll never be able to forgive my ignorance. For I've rubbed shoulders with a few of you-some of you have even been my close friends. And I know how dearly you love "Hitchhiker's Guide," how singularly genius you think the mythology is, and how smart ("brilliant," actually) the whole thing is behind its humor. I've sat quietly while you chattered about the book with your more informed friends, and perhaps you've heard me remark that I'd love to read the book, since I love a good laugh and a good space adventure. You told me that this movie was coming out, and I shared in your excitement, but I didn't listen when you told me to read the book first. I'm sorry. It won't happen again (F.Y.I.-I'm more than prepared for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

And so, in short, this review is not for you Adams fans, but for others like me, who will be visiting the Hitchhiker state of mind for the first time in this movie. For us, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works like this-some of the jokes are wickedly funny, and Adams' vision of whimsical adventure and disarming poignancy does take some shape. But, overall, the film doesn't quite work, since in order to appreciate everything in it, you need to read the book and get familiar with all the in-jokes. The fact is, Hitchhiker's Guide isn't an adaptation everyone can appreciate in the same way, and thus, isn't really an adaptation at all. It's more like a toy for Adams fans to play with, to taste and consider and rip apart according to their opinion of the book. Folks like us were never meant to watch this movie.

From one perspective, this makes perfect sense. After all, so much of Adams' universe exists outside the book, and even the stuff inside the book is too vast and complex to condense into a two hour movie. It'd be tough to make a comprehensive version of Hitchhiker's Guide for beginners. The question is, is this a fair excuse? I say no. Granted, director Garth Jennings has no obligation to reduce Adams' work to the lowest common denominator (doing so might spoil the essence of the book), but he should at least try to please as many people as possible. The way I see it, if the massive "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a far larger work than Adams' book, can be made into an easy-to-follow, crowd-pleasing epic film, then why can't "Hitchhiker's Guide"?

Maybe I sound like I hated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I didn't hate it; I just couldn't shake the feeling that something crucial was lost in translation. There's plenty I did like about the movie. I loved the bits taken right from the pages of the book, like the narrations by Stephen Fry, as the voice of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a galactic encyclopedia designed to help those new to interplanetary travel. I loved Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, a humble man who is swept off Earth just in time to see it demolished (to make way for a galactic highway). The Volgons, the sluggish, abrasive alien race who destroyed Earth, are a startling feat of computer animation. Mos Def, a proven rapper and dramatic actor (see The Woodsman), makes a triumphant debut as a comic actor in a pitch perfect performance as Ford Prefect, Arthur's alien friend. And there's something sardonically funny about the depressed droid, Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), who can never look on the bright side of anything.

But the movie doesn't feel like it has a story. Sure, there's a plot with characters and an arc somewhere, but Hitchhiker's Guide seems to disown the narrative after a while. Then it's just a game of connect the dots, and we jump from one scene in the book to another without warning, like a city tour or a musical revue. It feels cheap and feeble, like the only thing keeping it from crashing into complete nonsense are the wisps of Adams' talent and the legions of fans waiting at the bottom to support it (or hungrily collect the pieces as they fall).

A lot of the stuff in Hitchhiker's Guide is really hilarious. And, when you get right down to it, nothing about the writing, the acting or the look of the film could be called "bad." It's the tone that's off. It's the sense that Adams' cheery wit and drolly wise observations can't be fully realized in a movie, where time and space don't sit well with prolonged series of nonsequitors, clever though they might be. The work of Douglas Adams might be unfilmable. For fans of the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is just what you're looking for (but you stopped reading a while ago, so who am I talking to?). For the rest of us, this movie will make a lot of people very angry, and will be widely regarded as a bad move.

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