by Abe Goldfarb
It is a measure of how beloved and culturally pervasive Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe is that roughly three quarters of the reviews for its long-awaited film adaptation start with the phrase "don't panic". That this phrase, like Heller's "catch-22," has entered the lexicon is a testament to Adams' enduring legacy. What's interesting about this is that Adams, on reflection, was counterculture in a way that other, hipper artists never managed to be. He was a radical atheist, his books and essays pointing toward a way of life that balanced technology and environmental concern (Last Chance to See, his document of travelling around the world to witness dying species, is absolutely stunning). In an age when the relatively innocuous His Dark Materials books are a lightning rod for religious controversy, how might modern America have reacted to Oolon Colluphid's "trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is This God Person Anyway?" This is but a tiny detail in Adams' meticulously shambolic tapestry, a throwaway gag, but it signifies his irreverent beliefs perfectly.
Irreverence, however, has a way of going wrong when it's in the open. From the announcement of a Hitchhiker movie, through the casting, through the production photos, through the trailers, through everything else, a legion of fans was waiting to pounce at the slightest sign of corruption. What they may have missed, in their love for the literal text of Adams' work, is that in every incarnation, it was drastically different. The radio series (which was the very first version) was different from the books, which differed in many ways from the television series (the late surge of support for which has surprised me; it may be enjoyable, but it's definitely the weakest Hitchhiker project), which was pretty damn different from the Infocom text adventure. Every time Adams added to the pile, the story and mythology got stranger and more tangled. To paraphrase Adams, sometimes characters did totally different things for the same reasons, or the same things for totally different reasons. In other words, Adams had no time for the rabid reverence with which many fans have viewed his work.
All of this is not by way of an apologia, simply to prepare you for the odd, rambling, gorgeous, rambunctious treat of a film director Garth Jennings has delivered. The fear of many fans, that this production would be an ugly Hollywood-ization, turns out to have been completely unfounded. The basics remain the same: Arthur Dent (an unimprovable Martin Freeman), a peaceful, sad little man, discovers that his eccentric friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def, trumping cynics to deliver a terrific, serenely weird comic turn) is an alien mere moments before the destruction of Earth. Saved by Ford, Arthur is thrust into an interstellar adventure with the likes of Zaphod Beeblebrox, rogue President of the galaxy (played by the redoubtable Sam Rockwell as an antic amalgam of George W. Bush and Elvis Presley), and Trillian (the luminously off-kilter Zoory Deschanel), a girl he once met who was stolen away by the caddish Zaphod.
The changes, much picked over by the fans, are not detrimental, and in some cases mark an improvement. The addition of Rockwell, Deschanel and, especially, Def were bemoaned by the devout as compromises forced by a studio. The fact that these three comprise some of the brightest and best of the indie and off-Broadway scene immediately discounts this stupid theory (and in the case of Mos Def, the blinding racism behind the geek community's virulent reaction). Having Arthur surrounded by Americans only heightens the sense of, pardon the pun, alienation. Zaphod in particular emerges as a sharp and hysterical parody of brainless American cultural imperialism. The much-derided romance between Arthur and Trillian, not in the books, works like a soft, sweet charm, and adds a tension to Adams' digressive tale that might not have been present otherwise.
The film is, in any case, an embarrassment of riches, from its grimily low-tech production design (Vogon technology is an ugly delight) to the soaring loveliness of its bigger conceits (Arthur's tour of a planet factory is at first an effects marvel and finally a moving love-letter to the planet Earth). The opening, a big-band number sung telepathically by dolphins as they escape the doomed planet, is a belly-laugh and a half, and the closing image is an unforeseen choker-upper for any Adams fan. It's almost too much to go into, and Garth Jennings deserves a lot of credit for using as little CGI as possible (the puppet aliens, overseen by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and voiced largely by Brit comedy evil geniuses The League of Gentlemen, are beyond perfection) and for shooting and cutting the thing with unpredictable roughness.
If there is a complaint, it's only this: Adams never cared for resolutions, and his entire body of work studiously avoids story structure and momentum. In this respect, the film is utterly faithful, and it may put off the unprepared viewer. The pace lurches in spots. The tone, just as in the books, is of a genial, screwball, wit-soaked, melancholy ramble. The film never really concludes, it just sort of ends (although in this case, it's a nice setup for a sequel). Did I mind? No. Did the theater, filled with a smiling, laughing audience mind? Certainly not. The film doesn't feel like a Hollywood blockbuster, which was fine by us.
It just feels good.