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.
Our heroes somehow find out where Trillian is being held and decide to burst in and rescue her. They don't have a gun (although Marvin and Zaphod both had guns when we first met them on the Heart of Gold) so they use Marvin's arm, leaving the now asymmetric robot to head back to the Hogpod. The downside of this is that Marvin's arm doesn't resemble a weapon in any way, so it takes the audience a while to work out why Arthur is now carrying it, and to tell the truth I’m still not entirely certain that it’s a pretend weapon but I can think of no other explanation. However the really, really bad part here - I mean, shoot-me-now bad - is that the last thing that happens before the team burst through the door is that Arthur says to Marvin - are you ready for this? - "Marvin, can you give me a hand?"
Oh please, fetch me a surgeon for I fear that my sides are splitting.
That's right: as well as losing vast amounts of Douglas Adams' carefully crafted comedy, we are subjected to pisspoor playground jokes like this one. This must count as one of the most gobsmackingly awful, embarrassing and unfunny moments in cinematic history. Either the film-makers have no idea what comedy actually involves, or they momentarily forgot that they were supposed to be aiming at an audience slightly older than the one watching Pooh's Heffalump Movie on the next screen along.
There is, incidentally and in case you're wondering, no mention of Marvin now being 'mostly armless', thank Christ. But then there is no reference anywhere in the film to the Guide's entry on Earth, just one of many, many iconic elements of the story that have been thrown out to make room for more 'that explains the accent' lead-weights and more 'give me a hand' sidesplitters. Marvin in particular has lost most of his established lines. Hey, that's the way to treat the story's most popular character and his battery of pithy one-liners - chuck them out. We do get "Life, don't talk to me about life", a reference to "brain the size of a planet" and "I've seen it, it's rubbish" (although he's not talking about the Magrathean sunset). But all of Marvin's other dialogue is new stuff which, though it may be in character, just lacks any actual humour. "Would you like me to go and rust in a corner or just fall apart where I'm standing?" is funny; "Oh, for God's sake," isn't, even in the fine tones of Alan Rickman. Worst of all is Marvin's response to Zaphod shouting "Freeze!" when the robot first leads Ford and Arthur onto the bridge:
"Freeze? I'm a robot, not a refrigerator."
Ooh, better get that surgeon again.
I mean, Jesus, did no-one involved with the film, none of this small army of producers, co-producers and executive producers, ever, at any point, read this and think, "That's a shit joke. Let's take it out."? Anyone? Hello?
So our three heroes have burst through a door and discovered not an armed fortress but an office with a queue of weird beings (mostly very inanimate Henson puppets - I think the effects budget must have been running out by this point). In among them is the Marvin costume from the TV series - a nice cameo and, hey, an in-joke which won't serve to confuse new viewers - but this gag is completely and utterly mishandled. If all we saw of the old Marvin was when Arthur walks past him and does a very slight double take, that would be great. But we have already had two lengthy establishing shots of the room where Marvin sticks out like a sore thumb on account of being so different in design to all the other aliens there. What is the point of going to the trouble of setting up a gag like that if it's going to be destroyed before it can work?
There follows a sequence of Arthur, Ford and Zaphod trying to find and fill in the right form to get Trillian released, while we see Trillian being lowered into a large box containing the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (all we see is one glowering eye). If there is meant to be any tension here, it's not evident at all. We don't feel that Trillian is in any danger, mainly because it seems to take forever to lower her the few feet into the shaking box.
The problem is pacing, and it is evident throughout the film though rarely more so than here. The whole movie plods along at a sedate walking pace, from one thing to another thing to another thing. It never seems to speed up or slow down; it's just a relentless sequence of things happening in order. One of our central characters is in peril (facing, as Douglas Adams would say, 'certain death') and we really don't care, nor are we rooting for the three guys to get the paperwork sorted. It all just sort of happens.
When Trillian is eventually released, she gives Zaphod a big slap. This is because, when she was interrogated by the Vogons about 'kidnapping' Zaphod, her claims to come from Earth were refuted and she was shown the planet’s demolition order which was signed 'love and kisses, Zaphod'.
Back to the Hogpod and thence back to the Heart of Gold they all go, and on to another planet which this time actually is Magrathea.
The Magrathean hologram is played by Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent, as a disembodied head and hands. This is in 3D, to the extent that a red ghost of the head can be seen just to one side and a green ghost to the other. I don't know if audiences will be supplied with red/green glasses for this 30 seconds or so of stereoscopy. That would actually be really funny, so I think we can safely assume that the answer is 'no'.
Jones, incidentally, has the one genuinely funny line of dialogue in the entire damn movie. It's a new line, added to the end of his speech, which wouldn’t have made any sense in 1978 but is now very funny and astute. I don’t know whether it was written by Douglas Adams or not, and as explained at the start I don’t care, but it sounds as if it was written by Douglas Adams and that’s all that matters to me. Because it is such a rare treat I won't spoil it for you. Just don't cough while the Magrathean hologram is speaking or you may have wasted 110 minutes of your life instead of just 109 minutes and 30 seconds.
We then get the whale monologue where the script also deviates from previous versions, though without the comedy value of Jones’ extra line. This monologue, widely regarded as a perfect slice of one-voice comedy, has always finished with: “I wonder if it will be friends with me.” But Bill Bailey’s version - and he does a good job, to be fair - adds a coda: “Hello, ground.” Why? Why stick in an unnecessary extra couple of words to a monologue that Douglas honed to perfection? Do they make the monologue funnier? No sir, they do not. In fact they make it what we in the trade call ‘not quite as funny’. There has been a lot of talk during the production of this film about honouring Douglas’ work and sticking to his ideas, so why did someone feel the need to piss about with his carefully chosen words and phrases? Did that same person who took out ‘surrealism’ suddenly realise that the movie was under-running and look for spots to stick in extra words to get it back above 100 minutes?
So anyway: Magrathea. You may have noticed that the whole film up to now has been just a picaresque series of mini-adventures on a bunch of different planets. The original Hitchhiker's story was a picaresque tale too and that was always cited as one of the problems in trying to turn it into a feature film screenplay. But all that has happened is that one sequence of largely unconnected events has been replaced by another one. Well, obviously that's not all that has happened. The film-makers have also buggered about with the characters and taken all the jokes out.
At this point we still don't know anything about Magrathea. On the snowy surface the team find three large, circular, transdimensional portals, one of which gets activated - somehow - and through which Trillian, Ford and Zaphod jump. Before Arthur works up the courage to follow them, the portal switches off - somehow - and he is left to watch the sunset with Marvin until he is approached by Slartibartfast. There’s no "mountains of fire boiling away into space", no "electronic sulking machine" - by now we're simply not expecting any of the classic lines so it's no surprise when they don't come. One line that is retained is, “You know we built planets, don’t you?”, which is ironic because, for those in the audience unfamiliar with previous versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide, the answer to this is ‘no’.
Here I must give credit where credit is due and say that Bill Nighy is the best thing about this film. This is not surprising as he is an excellent comic actor who, though he tends to always play variations on the same character, can give a breath of understated fresh air to even the worst production. It helps in this case that his dialogue has been largely left alone so he has pretty much the same lines to work with as the late Richard Vernon (originally written, of course, for John Le Mesurier). Yet he manages to bring the character to life in a completely different way to Vernon's befuddled old dodderer. Much as I love Vernon’s portrayal, I think that Slartibartfast is the one area where the big screen version actually improves on the radio and TV shows.
There is an ineffable sadness to Nighy's Slartibartfast, a world-weariness, a suggestion that although he enjoys his work he doesn't enjoy his job. He then takes Arthur on a tour of the Earth Mark II which is great. A series of rods push and pull their tiny yellow cage around the planet at terrifying speed as the Magrathean shows off the wonders of the world. We see a worker filling the ocean from an industrial water hose, we see another worker painting Ayers Rock red, we see yet another in a forest inflating the fungi. It's a clever, funny, relevant sequence which for a few fleeting minutes captures the real attitude and style of Douglas Adams' writing. It is only let down by the removal of Arthur’s reference to “women standing on chairs in early sixties sitcoms” so that Slartibartfast no longer claims to “know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak” but instead knows “little of this cheese of which you speak.” As he is currently rebuilding early 21st century Earth in every exact detail, including pubs and therefore including cheese sandwiches, this line doesn’t actually make any sense.
It probably helps here that Arthur Dent has little to do in this sequence except listen to Slartibartfast. Martin Freeman's portrayal of the story’s central character comes across, to be blunt, as an irritating little git. We never feel any sympathy or empathy for him - which is a bit of a problem for an everyman character who is the last survivor of the human race. (Or is he? Trillian was confirmed as 'half-alien' during production but there is no reference to this in the finished film.) Among the other cast, Mos Def takes a bit of getting used to as Ford, not because of his colour or his accent but because of his very reticent, awkward, mumbling mannerisms, but when he settles down he’s pretty good. Zooey Deschanel is actually very good indeed, making Trillian, in an extraordinary change-up for the books, the strongest and most interesting character on the Heart of Gold. Sam Rockwell, as previously noted, is uncharacteristically awful and Malkovich is wooden in his non-role. I don’t think any of this is necessarily the fault of the actors, I think the problem lies with hiring a director who, while undoubtedly an expert at crafting a three-minute pop video or 40-second TV ad, has no experience of directing actors in a full-length, big-budget movie. Credible characterisation is no more to be seen here than cohesive storylines. The movie is one long showcase of production design and special effects, many of them completely gratuitous. It has pretty pictures where it should have a plot.
While Slarti is giving Arthur the grand tour, the other three emerge from the portal, presumably in another dimension. They trudge up some steps to Deep Thought, which is now overgrown with creepers but is still operating. The computer, which is shaped like a giant monitor leaning on one elbow, has spent the past umpteen million years - Christ, I really don't want to have to type this - watching cartoons.
You read it right. Deep Thought, evidently long-abandoned by its makers, spends its time watching children’s cartoons on a small portable TV. As dumb, ill-conceived, unfunny, miss-the-point ideas go, that is possibly even worse than that fucking hula doll. (And the ‘cartoons’ we see it watching are simply a short loop of very basic, crudely animated human shapes moving across a screen. I mean, the movie has been made by Disney for Christ’s sake. I’m sure I read somewhere that they once made some cartoons...)
But wait, something will probably have been nagging at the back of your mind for a while now. You are no doubt wondering why - I mean, why the bloody hell - is Zaphod going to Deep Thought to find out the Question? Isn't the whole point that Deep Thought was only powerful enough to calculate the Answer and had to design a bigger computer to work out the Question? Isn't that the very bedrock of the whole damn fucking storyline, for fuck's sake?!
Yes. Yes, it is that bedrock. So the whole journey to Magrathea to find Deep Thought makes no sense whatsoever and is completely and utterly pointless (in an early draft Deep Thought had actually been built by the Magratheans, so thank Christ that at least that daft idea was kicked into touch). While Zaphod is there, he picks up the weapon that Humma Kavula wanted - the Point of View gun.
This is a device which, when fired at someone, makes them (temporarily) see your point of view. It's a neat, Douglas Adams-created (we do know that, not that it matters) idea which, as explained in a quite amusing new Guide entry, was invented by a group of annoyed housewives who were fed up with ending every conversation with: “You just don’t get it, do you?” It was then designed and built (or rather, a bunch of them were built, since Zaphod picks the last one from a series of empty gun-racks) by Deep Thought. Which of course makes a mockery of Deep Thought having been created solely for one purpose. Zaphod, Trillian and Ford then try the Point of View gun on each other, which allows Trillian's contrasting feelings towards Zaphod and Arthur to be externalised by Zaphod, an idea which could have been clever but just comes across as a clumsy info-dump.
(As an aside, it is worth noting that the team’s only reason for acquiring this gun is to give it to Humma Kavula in return for Zaphod’s head and arm. But absolutely no attempt is ever made to get the gun to Humma once they have retrieved it; there is not even any mention of him after they leave Viltvodle. And while we’re at it, no explanation is given as to how Humma knows that there is a single Point of View gun still attached to the base of Deep Thought, or how he knows that Deep Thought is accessible through a dimensional portal on the surface of Magrathea, or how he knows about Deep Thought at all. Or indeed where all the other Point of View guns have gone, or why no-one took this one. And while we’re still at it, since the effect of the gun is shown to only last a few seconds, it would be of no use whatsoever for a missionary seeking to convert non-believers. And while we’re still, still at it, why didn’t Humma just take his old political opponent prisoner - all of him, not just his spare head, plus his old opponent’s friends too - then take the Heart of Gold himself to Magrathea? The entire Humma Kavula subplot is one of the worst bits of movie plotting that I have ever seen. It makes no sense whatsoever, goes absolutely nowhere and is apparently just an excuse for lots of production design jokoids based on noses. Human noses, mind you, not Jatravartid ones...)
Short film review (no spoilers)