This review is based on a substantially complete version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy shown to a small group of journalists in London on 31st March 2005, to which I was invited by Buena Vista International and Digital Outlook. The generosity of these companies in paying for my travel to this screening is gratefully acknowledged. The opinions expressed here are the personal critical opinions of myself, author and journalist MJ Simpson. This review is based on a single viewing of the film; if any factual details have been misremembered, I am happy to amend those portions of the text. Because of its great length, this review has been split into four parts:
WARNING. This reviews contains many SPOILERS including the entire plot of the film.
Let's start by establishing a few basics. The only two things that matter when judging this film are 'Is it a good movie?' and 'Is it a good version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?' One thing which is totally irrelevant is 'How much of it did Douglas Adams write?' Douglas was not the best arbiter of what did or did not work in various versions of Hitchhiker's Guide: much of what we love in the story was created by other people or at least by Douglas in collaboration with other people, and some of his own ideas were wisely dropped from earlier versions. So 'but Douglas came up with that bit himself' is not a valid rejoinder to any criticism of changes made from previous versions.
In other words, from the audience’s point of view, it matters not a jot whether Douglas Adams wrote any particular part of this movie; it only matters that it should sound like he wrote it.
Let me also acknowledge that a lot of very nice, very talented people, who have been very kind to me, some of whom I'm lucky enough to consider friends, have worked very hard on this film. I have been extraordinarily privileged - a visit to the set, interviews with cast and crew, exclusives for my website, a preview screening - but that should not affect my critical judgement. Disney have got some great free publicity out of me in return - quid pro quo - but when it comes to reviewing the film, all this means is that I will be kinder when making negative points and more enthusiastic when making positive ones. It won't affect what those points are and it won't affect my overall opinion. You can't (or at least, shouldn't be able to) buy good publicity for a bad film. And this film, I'm very sorry to report, is bad.
Really bad. You just won't believe how vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad it is. I mean, you might think that The Phantom Menace was a hopelessly misguided attempt to reinvent a much-loved franchise by people who, though well-intentioned, completely failed to understand what made the original popular - but that's just peanuts to the Hitchhiker's movie. Listen.
And so on...
The plot has changed considerably. Yes, every version of Hitchhiker's has been different, but there is a core plot: the first radio series, the TV series, the two LPs, the first two novels and, crucially, the play. Jonathan Petherbridge's stage adaptation is a perfectly good example of how the whole of the Hitchhiker's saga can be effectively told in under two hours but seems to have been completely ignored by the film-makers as possible source material or guidance. (And speaking of running times, let us never forget that this movie is adapted from a novel which was based on only four radio episodes, ie. two hours of material, so there really shouldn’t be any need to cut too much out.)
What we have here is a story which changes some of the really, really basic, iconic elements of Hitchhiker's as established in all the previous variant editions. That wouldn't be so bad if it changed these elements for the purposes of creating a good film, but that is sadly not the case. What has emerged from all this chopping and changing is an incoherent mess in which important things happen for no reason except to advance the plot and unimportant things happen for no reason at all.
The opening titles play over footage of performing dolphins with a big show number called 'So Long and Thanks for All the Fish'. It's not clear whether the dolphins on screen are actually meant to be singing this: in some shots it looks like they are, in others like they're not. For a movie made by a pop promo team, there is remarkably little attempt to match the visuals with the music. The version I saw did not have a finished sound mix; hopefully by the time the film is released they will have remixed this song so that you can actually make out the lyrics.
We start the story proper with Arthur waking up and staring groggily at a picture of himself and Trillian on his NOKIA phone. Then, while he's trying to call someone on his NOKIA phone, his whole house starts shaking. Outside are lots of bulldozers and Mr Prosser, but Ford turns up and takes Arthur to the pub where Arthur shows him the picture on his NOKIA phone and we see a flashback to a fancy dress party, with Arthur as Livingstone and Trillian as Charles Darwin. While they're talking, Zaphod turns up and claims to be from another planet.
Arthur's house is knocked down. Then the Vogons turn up, make their announcement, cause panic and destroy the Earth. Fortunately Ford hitches a ride for himself and Arthur on one of the Vogon ships. (He saves Arthur in return for the time they met, when Arthur stopped him from being run over; Ford was trying to shake hands with an advancing car - this entirely unnecessary addition to the story is another flashback.) In the Vogon corridor, Arthur desperately tries to get a connection on his NOKIA phone but they are captured, then the Vogon captain reads them some poetry and throws them into space, where they are picked up by the Heart of Gold, leaving Arthur's NOKIA phone floating in the void, filling the whole screen.
Product placement? Oh, it's very subtle. I barely noticed a thing.
So far, so normal, although what took an hour on TV and radio is crammed into about 15 minutes here. Hitchhiker's Guide always had a strong opening. It was beginnings that Douglas Adams was good at, middles and especially ends being a bit trickier. The dialogue between Arthur and Prosser, which was written for a sketch in a Cambridge Footlights revue in October 1973, is a terrific example of Douglas' clever way with - and love of - language:
Or, as the movie version has it:
Can you spot what has been removed from this scene, gentle reader, in order to shorten it? That's right. The jokes. The jokes have gone. The funny bits, the wit, the humour. The clever stuff that made it worth including in the first place.
Throughout the movie, wherever there are recognisable scenes, they have been severely shortened. This not only doesn't work, it also shows an amazing lack of understanding of what made Hitchhiker's so good in the first place. Here’s a clue: it's not the story. Douglas Adams had no real idea of how to string a long-form narrative together - that's why the plot is so fluid. It's the ideas and - let's be quite clear about this - the use of language which make Hitchhiker’s so enjoyable and so perennially popular. Douglas was a comedy sketch writer. His forte was brilliant dialogue in intricately constructed little three-minute bursts and all the best bits of the story, like Mr Prosser’s scene, are self-contained sketches. Douglas worked and worked at each line of dialogue (or monologue, as the case may be) until it was absolutely perfect; this can be clearly seen in radio producer Geoffrey Perkins’ anecdote about how Douglas would turn up with half an episode, work on it all day, and go home with only a third of an episode.
That's why there are so many wonderfully quotable lines in Hitchhiker's Guide, most of which are notable by their absence from the film. There are, astoundingly, individual phrases and even words that have been removed. For example, in the Vogon poetry scene which, like Prosser's confrontation, is now so short as to be utterly pointless, Arthur’s line "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor", a brilliantly crafted piece of faux literary critique, has become "counterpoint the underlying metaphor." How is that justified? Did someone try to keep the film under two hours by crossing out some of the long words?
Great chunks of familiar, much-loved and (crucially) funny material has been replaced or dispensed with entirely. Instead of cleverly tricking Prosser into lying down in the mud, Ford simply distracts the workmen with a shopping trolley full of cans of lager which he just happens to have with him. Also, the conversation with the Vogon guard before Arthur and Ford are thrown into the airlock, which was apparently included in an early cut of the film, was nowhere to be seen in the version that I saw (nor do we get, “I really wish I had listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”). Yet, while all this great stuff is absent, room has been found for some real clunkers of new lines. For example, Ford's sincere "How would you react if I told I wasn't from Guildford after all?" - which is actually now quite funny, spoken with a New York accent - is sledgehammered home shortly afterward with Arthur saying: "So you're not from Guildford after all? That would explain the accent." Yes, that was definitely worth losing the ‘wish I’d listened to my mother’ gag for.
Aboard the Heart of Gold, Zaphod at one point calls his cousin "Ix - I mean Ford." That's an in-joke for the fans which will just confuse any non-fans who catch it. And yet we have lost "bloody Martin Smith from Croydon". I know which line I would rather have, because it's (a) Hitchhiker's Guide and (b) funny. Notice also that the Martin Smith line is an in-joke in itself, referring to Douglas' former writing partner. Douglas loved in-jokes but he understood that they should be either unnoticeable or something that is funny in itself anyway, for those who are not 'in' on the real joke. Whereas "Ix - I mean Ford" is just a big 'huh?' for anyone who doesn't know Hitchhiker's Guide intimately (and a small ‘huh?’ for those who do).
Actually, I take it back. The ‘Ix’ line isn’t an in-joke because to be one of those it would need to be a joke. Which it rather obviously isn’t.
From here on in, the story starts changing a lot. Zaphod has a video recording of Deep Thought being asked for the Answer and then responding seven and a half million years later. Fair enough that Vroomfondel and Majikthise the philosophers have been removed, but we also lose all the great lines from this sequence, such as "What, not till next week?" Lunkwill and Fook, who are played for some inexplicable reason by children, seem entirely unfazed by the vast scope of the delay and their descendants don't seem terribly angry at the useless answer, which is delivered with absolutely no portentousness or gravitas whatsoever. Helen Mirren sounds like she's just answering a question about what she had for breakfast. This was a not-quite-finished version (only three weeks before the premiere!) so perhaps Mirren's voice will be treated in some way and perhaps the music in the finished version will give the '42' revelation the build-up that it needs in order for it to function as a joke. At least, I bloody hope so.
Anyway, Zaphod has this video recording which cuts off just before Deep Thought announces what the new computer will be called. The makers of Deep Thought are still apparently a race of pan-dimensional beings, so it's really not clear where this recording came from. (We see a couple of white mice escaping from Trillian's bag around this point but they're evidently not her pets. Just - ironically - hitching a lift. Which was bloody prescient of them.)
The Infinite Improbability Drive, in this version of the story, isn’t some supremely efficient propulsion system but is a device which takes the ship to completely random places, although fortunately they are all places where the cast need to be in order for the plot to happen. Going in and out of Infinite Improbability causes the Heart of Gold to change itself into a quick series of other random items. When the last of these is a giant ball of wool we get a very brief scene of the crew as stop-motion knitted dollies (available now in a Disney Store near you, by a lucky coincidence) and when the last item is a flower the crew are seen brushing petals from their faces.
It is evident that the film-makers have managed to completely misunderstand the whole concept of improbability. They have looked at the whale and the bowl of petunias and said, "Ah, improbability causes things to turn into other things." So instead of all sorts of weird and unlikely things happening, all we ever get is transformation (and not even the 'turning into a penguin' gag - Ford and Arthur arrive on the ship as a pair of sofas). But it’s not a Transmogrification Drive, it’s not a Surrealism Drive, it’s an Improbability Drive. For goodness' sake, did no-one on the production think to look in a dictionary if they weren’t sure? Once again a great deal of effort has been put into fan-pleasing references (I nearly said ‘in-jokes’ there but, well, see above), such as the detailed mural on the front of the Heart of Gold which tells the story of how the Infinite Improbability Drive was invented, while the main point has been completely missed.
Short film review (no spoilers)