Everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perfect.
The Vogons appearance with their nose being the tallest part of their faces; their slobbery jowls; coming from the Dark Crystal-side of Jim Henson’s puppetry; their vocals and poetry — perfect. Warwick Davis‘ depressed hobble as Marvin — picturesque!
- The Casting
Sam Rockwell’s loud, carefree and boisterous Zaphod Beeblebrox; Zooey Deschanel’s monotone and detached Trillian; Bill Nighy and his hesitant threats as Slartibartfast; Martin Freeman with his nothing-really-to-live-for Arthur Dent; Alan Rickman’s manic-depressive Marvin; Stephen Fry as the narrating voice of The Guide; and even Mos Def — a choice from out of left-field — proved fruitful as the charismatic Ford.
- The Director
Director Garth Jennings perfectly showcases The Hitchhiker’s Guide with fluid special effects and animations that work as scene transitions, comedic exposition and forward the ongoing narrative.
- The Sets and Special Effects
The Heart of Gold is brought to life on the big screen and is easily as iconic as the Death Star. The improbability drive – a damn near ‘improbable’ concept to capture – is done to perfection with some film-specific jokes that help explain it further. The whale and bowl of petunias was spot on. Deep Thought’s design (and voice for that matter). Zaphod’s two heads — as clever as it is practical. And Slartibartfast’s futuristic mine cart ride through the factory of planets actually brought clarity to how that section worked in the novel and indeed its scope could only be captured on the big screen.
Everything. Literally everything in this movie is as it should be… but it doesn’t work.
Who’s to Blame?
It’s hard to point the finger when so much effort went into this film. When Robbie Stamp (producer) was asked about the studio’s influence, he said, “I think that a lot of fans would be surprised to know just how much of a free hand we have been given in the making of this movie” (Slashdot).
To be honest, that doesn’t surprise me. This is a rare type of film that zips and zaps all over the place. It’s one of a kind to be sure, but the only area that really felt like studio involvement was the romance… which Stamp also dispels:
“All the substantive new ideas in the movie, Humma, the Point of View Gun and the “paddle slapping sequence” on Vogsphere are brand new Douglas ideas written especially for the movie by him… Even the enhanced relationship between Arthur and Trillian (in which people seem to have detected the hand of the Studio) was something that Douglas was working on as well… Douglas was always reinventing HHGG in each of its different incarnations and he knew that working harder on some character development and some of the key relationships was an integral part of turning HHGG into a movie.”
Which does make sense, I mean Arthur’s journey doesn’t really slow down until the end of the second novel, and the third novel is where he really starts to shine (fighting his nemesis, learning to fly, rescuing Trillian, etc.). And Trillian is detached from much of the story until the third book as well, so developing them (even romantically) was needed for a movie.
Was it trying too hard to be faithful to the book?
Certainly not. All the beats are there and much of the backstory and Guide-to-reader jokes as well. So how and why does this film not work as a movie?
Not Enough Time…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is too big to fill one film. Think of how The Hobbit trilogy would’ve been better served with two films (or even one). Well, that’s not the case with The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Had the film stuck with Earth, the Vogon Starship, and The Heart of Gold as its set pieces for Acts 1, 2, and 3, you’d have a more concise story with plenty of character development and interactions to go around. As it is, we see the story through vignettes and there’s simply not enough time for the characters to say or do anything of note.
Had the team behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy turned the first book into two films, I think they would’ve found more success. Plus — as I said in my book review — the second novel actually concludes the first, so two films would give them that three-act structure.
That said, it was 2005… and the movie was in preproduction since before Adams’ death in 2001. The concept of splitting a book into multiple films was not present, not even for The Lord of the Rings trilogy… which may have benefited from that, but I digress.
I’m positive “time” is the only element holding this movie back because, in the rare moments where “time” is not a factor, the humor — the genuine Adamsian comedy — shines on the big screen. Here’s two examples:
Example 1: When there’s a flat shot of Ford and Arthur in the air lock of the Vogon starship and Ford fiddles with the control panel for a bit before saying, “Nope, that clearly does nothing,” and then the emergency lights blink and they drop from below. Between Ford playing with controls he knows nothing about and the anti-climatic drop into space, this scene is perfect.
Example 2: When Ford, Arthur and Zaphod need to save Trillian by filling out the proper bureaucratic paperwork. This scene could not have been executed better by the master of visual film-making comedy, Edgar Wright, himself. About the only thing it lacks is consequence as Trillian is fine… but had she lost a foot in the process and the Vogons issued a bill for abandoned property (the foot) and damages to their blood-thirsty beast’s digestive tract, then that would’ve been the icing on the cake.
Those type of scenes are few and far between. I mean as an example of the opposite, just look at the Babel fish. Had I not read the book (and the movie assumes you have), I would’ve been lost as to what was going on. It almost makes more sense to do without Babel fish entirely (all other sci-fi movies do).
As it is, so much of the running time is spent towards exposition instead of character development or even dialogue. Although I adore the casting choices, none of them are given adequate time to be anything more than caricatures. And it’s not the actors’ faults, they are consistent, but we never see enough of them. The MacGuffin “Point-of-View” gun seemed to be the only way to deliver character development the film so missed out on.
Although I think Garth Jennings accurately portrayed the book and did a phenomenal job with a nigh impossible task… he was the wrong director for this film. To tell a futuristic story with satirical sociopolitical themes while developing hapless characters in an expansive world… you need Paul Verhoeven. Just look at RoboCop, Total Recall, and most telling, Starship Troopers – which delivers exposition in almost the same way the Guide functions, but STILL manages to develop its key characters.
PS. Very curious about that TV mini-series. Sounds like the length the series deserves.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Directed by Garth Jennings
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