Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I've done a little research and have concluded that there are four types of reactions for those that have seen The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
  • - those that have read author Douglas Adams' work and are relieved by this adaptation of it
  • - those that have read Adams' work and hate what happened between the page and the screen
  • - those that have not read the books and end up being charmed by the whimsical nature of the storytelling
  • - those that have not read the books and see this a a hit-or-miss movie with no story and little character development.
All of these reactions are justified, but they all miss the point.  Like the book that it is based on, this movie is less about plot and more about how the story is told.  The whos, wheres, and whys are largely inconsequential; the emphasis is on the delivery.  And that delivery is excellent.

This is a story about how the world ends.  I'll save you the suspense; aliens blow it up within the first ten minutes of the film to make room for an intergalactic highway.  From there, our everyman point-of-view character, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), is taken on a pan-galactic adventure with his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def).  Ford was an undercover alien on Earth, doing research on the planet for his employer, the constantly updated and best-selling book in the universe (literally), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Ford uses his hitchhiking skills to save Arthur and himself, and there their adventure begins.  Before the movie ends, we find out the answer to "life, the universe and everything," what the smartest creatures on Earth are, and what it feels like to be a woman.  For those of us that might be curious.  On this adventure, they gain some new companions, including the last human female in the cosmos, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a chronically depressed robot (with Alan Rickman providing the voice while Warwick Davis manned the costume), and the President of the Galaxy (Sam Rockwell).

If that all sounds fairly random...well, it is.  The primary plot device for this film is a spaceship that has an "Infinite Improbability Drive," which allows just about anything to happen in this movie.  Randomness might not be great for a coherent plot, but it does help with some fantastic visuals.  This movie doesn't do much with CGI special effects, instead opting for men in rubber suits, and it's a great choice.  All the aliens in this movie look amazing, from the bovine Vogon race to Humma Kavula's (John Malkovich's) spindly lower body.  These special effects choices were made, I think, not to impress you with the action sequences, but to be as funny and weird as the source material demanded.  Could this movie have been made with an animated depressed robot, voiced by Alan Rickman?  Of course.  They could have gone the Scooby Doo route, but it's much funnier to see an actual person wobble around with such a top-heavy costume.  Director Garth Jennings' only previous film work was on music videos, and it shows here.  His concern is clearly on the visuals and the timing of little moments, not on the film as a cohesive whole.  And he does an excellent job with that.  This is one of the most visually exciting movies of the past decade; Hitchhiker's has it all, from aliens and robots, to an entire scene where the characters and setting have been turned into yarn.

The visuals would not hold up nearly as well without impeccable casting.  Choosing Martin Freeman as the everyman character was a good move and Zooey Deschanel does a good job as a woman looking for the extraordinary.  Mos Def does a fantastic job as Ford Prefect, showing a talent for timing an understatement that he hasn't used a lot since (the adorable Be Kind Rewind being the only notable exception).  Sam Rockwell is hilarious as the bombastic airhead, President Zaphod Beeblebrox; I can totally understand his character annoying some viewers, but even his little gestures make me laugh here.  If you're not perfectly entertained by those two interacting, then there's nothing I can do to make this a more pleasurable movie experience for you.  Well, I guess I could point out the always awkward and charming Bill Nighy and his understated performance as a custom-made planet designer.

It is rare for a live action film to have the need for several voice actors, but this is an odd film.  Voice acting is, nowadays at least, a hit or miss field.  Movie studios usually want someone famous to lend their voice, regardless of how expressive that voice may be.  Luckily, this movie has some of the best voice acting you will find in any movie.  Ever.  Alan Rickman as a droll, clinically depressed, super smart robot?  Yes, please!  Helen Mirren as the biggest, smartest, and fastest computer ever created?  Sure, why not?  Thomas Lennon as an inappropriately optimistic computer for a spaceship?  That's an interesting casting choice, but it definitely works here.  Rounding out the voice cast, Stephen Fry does a perfect job as the narrator of the story and the reader of any Hitchhiker's Guide entries.

Douglas Adams wrote the screenplay for this movie, but died before it went into production.  The screenplay does differ significantly in parts from the book, but Adams made radical changes every time the story was adapted to a new medium (it's been on the radio and TV, as well), so that shouldn't be a big deal for rabid fans.  This isn't a movie that is slavishly indebted to the book that it is based upon.  This is a movie (written by the book's author) that understands the need for visuals to match the storytelling of the book.  No, this isn't a great story.  It is a lot of harmless fun, though. 

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