Thursday, April 07, 2011

Culture Shock 04.07.11: Revisiting 'The Hitchhiker's Guide'

I'm going to revisit a film this week that I think is in serious need of a critical reappraisal — 2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is based on the first volume of the late Douglas Adams' numerically challenged Hitchhiker's Trilogy, which is comprised of five novels, themselves based on Adams' BBC Radio 4 series, first broadcast in 1978, which he also adapted as a six-part BBC Two television series in 1981. (That BBC Two miniseries is currently streaming online at both Netfix and, and it's well worth your time, despite its having special effects on a par with "Doctor Who" episodes of the same period. Or, actually, maybe because of that.)

As one might suppose given all these adaptations, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is never exactly the same story twice, owing to the requirements of the different mediums, quantum indeterminacy and the sheer, crushing boredom of telling the same story over and over.

But Adams purists — certainly one of the most improbable species ever to have evolved on this small, blue-green world in the unfashionable western spiral arm of the Milky Way — were particularly upset by some of the deviations in the 2005 film, which has not helped its reputation.

This is all despite Adams having had a hand in writing the screenplay before his untimely death in 2001 at age 49.

So, what's wrong with the 2005 movie? Well, it does have a romantic subplot that does rather seem like an unwarranted concession to the Standard Hollywood Playbook. The SHP, for short, dictates that all action/adventure movies, including those in the sub-genre of the sci-fi comedy, have a romantic subplot. If you want to see a "Transformers" movie for the spectacle of CGI robots wailing on each other, you'll also have to put up with the tedious details of Shia LaBeouf's love life. Even "Galaxy Quest," easily the best sci-fi comedy since the original "Back to the Future," ended with Tim "The Toolman" Taylor and Ellen Ripley hooking up.

But apart from that, the 2005 version gets virtually everything right, including when it introduces, for no real reason, a new sci-fi prop — in this case, a gun that makes the target empathize with the shooter's feelings. In the wrong hands, say an ex-girlfriend, that's a truly devastating weapon.

Mainly, however, "The Hitchhiker's Guide" has two things going for it.

The first is that most of the aliens are not CGI constructs modeled in a computer. Rather, they're living, breathing foam-and-latex creatures spawned in the late Jim Henson's workshop. You can claim they're not as realistic as CGI characters — and you'd be wrong — but you can't say they're not more alive. I'll take a finely sculpted Vogon bureaucrat over a computer-animated Jar Jar Binks any day, and not just for the obvious reason that Jar Jar sucks.

The second reason is the excellent cast, led by Martin Freeman (The BBC's "The Office" and upcoming in "The Hobbit"), Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Bill Nighy, and the voices of Stephen Fry as "The Guide" and Alan Rickman as Marvin, the perpetually depressed android with a brain the size of a planet.

Rockwell and Rickman also starred in "Galaxy Quest," so if you're making a sci-fi comedy, casting them is probably a good move.

Is the 2005 "Hitchhiker's Guide" perfect? No. But it is a fun movie that knows where its towel is at, which is enough to earn it a spot on my personal list of the Top 5 Sci-Fi Comedies I've Actually Seen, which goes something like this: "Ghostbusters," "Back to the Future," "Galaxy Quest," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Battlefield Earth."

(I've just been informed that "Battlefield Earth" is, in fact, not a comedy at all but is intended as a serious science-fiction film. Oh, dear.)

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