Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Douglas Adams's cult novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had all but cemented its reputation as unfilmable. This adaptation, making its appearance just before the final installment in the Star Wars franchise, has been in development hell for over twenty years; despite being credited as an executive producer, Douglas Adams is good and cold now. After all the waiting -- well, to be honest, it's a rather disappointing movie. It feels almost blasphemous to say so, but something is rather seriously absent from this altogether disappointingly lacklustre production.

From the outset, Hitchhiker's Guide seems intent on signposting its Britishness: Stephen Fry provides the narration, the voice of the titular Guide. That, at least, is handled well; the mysterious Guide resembles a flatscreen monitor folded in half, with cutesy graphics and pastel colours, the infamous Don't Panic slogan emblazoned on its back cover. Issues of "faithfulness" to the original novels are rather redundant, especially considering the amount of control Adams had over the screenplay, but most of the movie's humour is decidedly stale.

The plot of the novel is perfectly intact: outraged by discovering his house is about to be demolished for the sake of a completely unnecessary bypass, everyman Arthur Dent is quickly distracted by his best friend's news that he's not from Guildford but rather somewhere in the region of Betelgeuse, and that the Earth is about to be destroyed. Hitching a ride with some passing aliens, the unlikely pair end up on the stolen Heart of Gold ship: a pioneer vessel that utilises the Improbability Drive, home of the two-headed prototype idiot, Zaphod -- who also just happens to be the President of the Universe -- and Trillian, the girl he stole from Arthur at a costume party once. Together, they set out to find the Ultimate Question. "Hey baby, wanna see my spaceship?" is still the ultimate chat-up line, but it's all downhill from there. Or rather, if the movie had any sense of direction whatsoever, it might go downhill, but as it is, it doesn't really go anywhere at all.

The casting is a little hit and miss: Mos Def is a controversial but perfectly decent Ford Prefect, even if almost every towel gag falls flat. Alan Rickman is an obvious but necessary choice for Marvin the paranoid android; Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast is similarly self-evident. Martin Freeman makes a perfectly servicable Arthur Dent, even though he's mostly pushed to the background. Zooey Deschanel is wide-eyed enough to pull off both the pretty and the whacky, but Trillian is also largely irrelevant. Then again, I couldn't say what was relevant: the movie skims along quite happily without anything ever really seeming to happen. It's all mindless light entertainment, with the only hitch being Sam Rockwell's supremely irritating portrayal of Zaphod Beeblebrox -- sure, Zaphod's annoying in the book, but what did the world do to deserve that? -- yet almost nothing is laugh-out-loud funny.

It's as if Hitchhiker's Guide is afraid of offending people. It's on its best behaviour, presenting nothing controversial or objectionable; retaining just enough of Douglas's original "quirks" to please the fans without alienating new audiences, but there's no hook. Essentially, the movie skips up to you singing "lalalala, I'm so British and eccentric, look, aren't I clever?" and then runs off again. The Ultimate Question appears to be "What's the point?", and it seems "42" is as good an answer as anyone's going to get. Finishing with the implication there'll be a sequel -- the crew of the Heart of Gold set off for the Restaurant at the End of the Universe -- but it really doesn't seem to have enough momentum for that. I could have spent my time better having a nap.

Oh well. At least there was a cameo (albeit a very, very brief and sneaky one) by Jason Schwartzman.

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