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Infinitely probable
"Oh no, not again."
A bowl of petunias


One day, author Douglas Adams and his agent Ed Victor had a very heated argument. It took place during the interminable development hell of the movie of Adams' science fiction radio/novel hit. True to form - that is to say with a hefty dose of surrealism - it was over the word 'cheese' (actually it was 'cheesy' but then what follows wouldn't make sense). How could a cult (Babel) fish-out-of-water story induce such ire over some fermented curd? This would have been beyond me if I hadn't instinctively understood both sides of the argument simultaneously. Adams wanted to make Hitchhiker's on a Men In Black scale and Victor pointed out, quite accurately in my view, that Hitchhiker's didn't lend itself to the big budget package and all that would have to come with it. "Hitchhiker's is cheesy," he said despite the intellect and wit contained within it. I can see what he means. Adams was not impressed. Even the best of us, those of us having made a fortune from musings about the night sky in Innsbruck, would be a trifle miffed by any accusation of cheese. Ham, perhaps. Cheese? Never.

Seeing Garth Jennings' interpretation of Adams' baby (with apologies to Adams' real offspring and partner Jane Belson), it's easy to appreciate both sides of that argument. All the effects are in place (and very nice they are too) and most of the essence of the first book adaptation of the radio series is retained. Phew. There are several nods to Hollywood; to be frank, they're significantly more than nods, more like orders that will be strictly obeyed. The first is that hapless Arthur Dent has to become heroic (in his own way, bless him. He achieves this by queuing and breaking a chair). Secondly he has to have a romantic goal (Trillian, naturally) and the movie has to have a villain and a climax. Hitchhiker's feels like it disagrees with and fights against the prevailing Hollywood wisdom but grudgingly concedes to all points. Disney was probably quite insistent. Before he died, the actual Uncle Walt wanted to make great art (it's a much tougher gig once you've passed on) but these days Disney is about money and you don't invest many millions of dollars on some namby-pamby Brit radio show (Radio Four, no less) unless you make it as audience friendly as possible.

Labour under no misconceptions. That is not a political slogan although it probably should be. Adams' work is very well represented here and faithfully and lovingly crafted for the screen. But it's still an intelligent, scattershot radio show dressed up (quite beautifully) like a real film (nothing wrong with that at all, as it is hugely entertaining). I know the material very well and still was pleasantly surprised by certain interpretations. CGI is used when CGI works. Slartibartfast's 'shop floor' is epic and actually delivers 'awe'. The Jim Henson Creature Shop does a terrific job on the creature designs (the Vogons are the stand out stars. They are as if Mr. Creosote had a brace of children with Winston Churchill) and the... wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. And speaking of heads...

Zaphod's second head (a throwaway line in the radio show and a 'should be thrown away' bane of the TV show) is actually quite nicely done and doesn't render the character ridiculous in the sense that you're always looking at the special effects. Marvin's head is large (the brain the size of a planet doesn't have to be literal) but all power to Warwick Davis, the little guy inside the suit. Marvin's physical performance is extremely good, the turn of that oversized noggin as a joke's punch-line is very deftly handled. When he is shot down at the climax, it's actually quite touching. Yes, we are all used to Stephen Moore's vocal delivery and the TV design (which amusingly pops up in a queue of all places). But Alan Rickman's voice and character are so linked to the Harrypotterverse (he plays potions master Snape in case one of you didn't know) but it's a good voice and hearing those oh-so familiar lines being given a different spin is actually not such a bad thing.

A good friend of Adams', Stephen Fry (who once smoked in one of Adams' Porsches forcing him to sell it immediately) plays the actual guide and he is damn near note perfect. It's interesting to note that Peter Jones (the original radio voice) was originally chosen for the movie (he's dead so he's (a) cheap and (b) cheap). No clean recordings of his original radio track were found. Trust the BBC not to archive the important stuff. Zooey Deschanel is enchanting as Trillian. You see photos of actors and you can't help making snap judgements but until you see how someone moves and the look in their eye (I believe Ms. Deschanel has two), there's no in-road to the performance. She is well worth Arthur's infatuation and while she was being fed to the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, I was anxious for a moment there.

Mos Def plays Ford Prefect spaced out to the n'th degree (which works very well). Arthur is fleshed out by The Office's only identifiable human character, Martin Freeman. It's a tough part (an everyman in a universe of oddity and eccentricity) but Freeman's romantic attachment to Trillian is so lightly played, his ordinariness so, so ordinary that he leads the movie by his dressing gown belt. The hardest part of all (Zaphod, not the whale) is made to look effortless by Sam Rockwell's cavalier over-the-top and up-the-other-side turn. As the bad guy in the first Charlie's Angels, he was never less than fun to watch. Here, his thespian instincts are pitched just right because get Zaphod wrong and the entire edifice sort of implodes.

Hitchhiker's is also a smart movie and smart $45 million movies are not exactly queuing up to be distributed. Not only is our hero reading The Selfish Gene (written by Adams' friend Richard Dawkins) at a fancy dress party but Arthur recognises a bearded girl as Charles Darwin (with stuffed beagle under her arm). How many folk from middle America are going to snag those references? What would the Disney executive say? Something like "Who cares?" For once, I can say that I enjoyed a film tremendously without really caring for the characters. I have had the radio show and the TV series intravenously fed to me over the last 27 years. Knowing what I know, it's impossible to have emotional attachments to these characters but given that, there is always the case of the 'new material', the stuff that Adams managed to pen before his sudden and wretchedly awful demise, in a Santa Barbara gymnasium of all places.

The villain (the upper half of whom is played by John Malkovich) wants Zaphod to bring him a gun. This is no ordinary weapon. When fired, it makes the victim take on the point of view of the one who fired it. Despite the rather blunt character revelation that this device literally brings forth, it is used well and sparingly. Figuring out her life up to that point, Trillian makes the rather strident point of female superiority by announcing "It won't affect me. I'm already a woman." I may be way off target here but that does sound like Douglas Adams' voice... Did I mention that I'm prepared to be proved wrong?

So what's it all about?

Everyman Brit Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford hitch a ride on a monstrous slab of a spaceship seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. After being ejected into space, they are picked up by the Heart of Gold, a ship powered by the revolutionary infinite improbability drive. In charge of the 2001-inspired craft is Zaphod Beeblebrox, an ego driven, two headed alien who wants to know the question, the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything (the answer's already been figured out; it's 42). Moments before the computer (called 'the Earth' - yes, our Earth) has this answer (to the question of the question) it's blown up. The mice were furious.

Just from that fairly accurate paragraph of the plot of Hitchhiker's, it's understandable why the movie lounged about in the airport terminal of development hell for so long. How do you sell that idea for a movie? The only way new Disney could appreciate - Adams' books sold millions... Could it be that the fiscal success of the novel greased the wheels? Heavens, no...

From memory:

"Hey you. Sass that hoopy, Ford Prefect. Here's a frood who really knows where his towel is..."

Do you?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

UK 2005
110 mins
Garth Jennings
Gary Barber
Roger Birnbaum
Jonathan Glickman
Nick Goldsmith
Jay Roach
Douglas Adams
Karey Kirkpatrick
Martin Kukula
Niven Howie
Joby Talbot
production design
Joel Collins
Martin Freeman
Sam Rockwell
Mos Def
Zooey Deschanel
Bill Nighy
John Malkovich
Stephen Fry
Bill Bailey
review posted
1 May 2005