You have to admire director Garth Jennings chutzpah in taking on The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy after cutting his teeth on videos for the likes of REM and Fatboy Slim. A film of Douglas Adams’ cult classic was always going to be a tough balancing act and it is a brave man who would take it on for his directorial debut.
On the one hand you have a big budget movie that has to earn back internationally, despite the limitations imposed by Adams’ ironic English humour. On the other you have millions of obsessive fans who will pick apart every detail and condemn every breach of faith with the original radio show and book.
If he drew inspiration from the words DON’T PANIC emblazoned in large friendly letters on the guide’s cover it worked, because he almost pulls off the impossible, thanks to some spectacular scenery, a gentle and wry humour faithful to Adams’ vision and most of all the filmic equivalent of a papal blessing – Adams co-wrote the script and was producer until his untimely death four years ago.
Adams’ perfectly timed one-liners and sidelong view of the universe are left in tact. Martin ‘The Office’ Freeman plays Arthur Dent, the unlikeliest hero since Noah, with appropriate deadpan desperation for a man whose world has collapsed, literally, and Sam Rockwell’s two-headed, three-armed Zaphod Beeblebrox has an ego the size of a planet worthy of any president.
But over everything hovers an unwillingness to tamper too much with the original, though the movie would have benefited from less reverent handling of the source material, which would have better adapted HHGTTG to cinema’s simpler format.
Like all that went before, the movie opens with Dent defying diggers come to demolish his house, a lone, sane voice in a world ruled by soulless bureaucrats. His friend Ford Prefect, played by rap star Mos Def, arrives on the scene with a supermarket trolley full of booze and news that the world is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Evidently the universe is also ruled by bureaucrats.
What follows remains close to the book, as Dent and Prefect hitch a ride with a passing spaceship and bump into Prefect’s old friend and Dent’s new adversary Beeblebrox and girlfriend Trisha Macmillan (Zooey Deschanel). The only departure from the original is a fleeting visit to John Malkovich’s church leader Humma Kavula, a fabulously sinister new character created by Adams for the film.
Malkovich’s appearance typifies the film’s weakness. I wanted to linger longer in his company, but too quickly we are whisked off for an equally frustrating and vertigo-inducing ride through a planet factory accompanied by the ever-laconic Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, the award-winning designer behind the twiddley bits in fjords.
Less plot would have been more, though undoubtedly fans would have been angry. But ultimately it is impossible not to like a film seeped in Adams’ wry and infectious love for the Earth and all its strange little creatures, even those dressed in pyjamas.