When my girlfriend and I were first getting to know each other
we traded books that we liked. I read The Poisonwood Bible.
When I told her that Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker’s Guide to
the Galaxy was formative — dare I say seminal —
to the man I am now, she began reading.
To her credit, she even finished it. But it was a grueling read
for her, and she admitted that she just didn’t get what
she thinks were probably the jokes.
I learned from this that some parts of geek culture must be planted
during the impressionable years of your life. If you come to the
geek arts already formed, without a grounding in the classics,
you’re going to be Billy Bob trying to figger out what’s
with all the caterwaulin’ on opera night.
So now there’s a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the
Galaxy movie. This is, what? — the eighth? fifteenth?
— version of this story? Let’s see, radio, mini-series,
novels, Infocom text game, stage adaption . . . well,
who cares. The point is that H2G2 has been through so many iterations
that nobody gets to cry foul that this flick doesn’t stay
true to the source material. The primary Source Material died
a few years back, and he gets writing credit (and a couple of
cameos) for this iteration too. In fact, the movie pays homage
to nearly all previous versions at various times.
Now, if you haven’t read H2G2 . . . well,
I’m not sure why you’re even at this site. It’s
like showing up at a campus feminist meeting without having
listened to Ani DiFranco on the way over. But let’s just
say you haven’t. To sum up: Arthur Dent, Englishman and
registered nebbish, is having a bad day. Construction workers
want to knock over his house to make room for a bypass (the
empty fields surrounding Arthur’s house subtly amplify
this absurdity). Suddenly, Arthur’s friend, Ford, shows
up to say that Earth will be destroyed in about 12 minutes to
make way for a hyperspace bypass — whoa, meta! —
and they need to get drunk to hitchhike onto a spaceship before
they’re blown up with it.
Wackiness ensues. But not in the hipster ironic sense. I mean,
really. Wackiness. I won’t even try to describe it, because
1) I don’t want to ruin it for you and 2) I would do it
no justice. The wackiness does not let up though.
But here’s the thing. Wacky loose ends that flapped amusingly
in the breeze in previous iterations are either snipped off here
or tied together to create a decidedly more cohesive story instead
of a series of comedic digressions. Elements obviously had
to be removed, and your pet comedic digression from the novel
probably did not make the cut. But what you get in return is an
actual plot and some character arcs that resemble actual arcs
instead of goofy squiggles.
Some of the visual moments of the movie look like Spike Jonez
consulted on a lazy afternoon. Surreal is a term so woefully overused
that it’s lost a lot of meaning, but how about freaky-ass?
Will freaky-ass do? There are some freaky-ass visuals here that
will have you making squinky noises as you rub your eyeballs to
make sure you’re seeing them right. And in an age when filmmakers
will call in the CGI goons for any damn reason, it’s nice
to see the Henson boys provide costumes and puppetry for most
of the aliens. It makes things look weirder in ways that even
Martin Freeman plays a passable Arthur Dent. He’s certainly
British enough for the part, but I wished for someone more facially
facile to convey Arthur's endless shades of perplexed and put-upon.
On the other hand, Mos Def is a spirited act of casting, and
I applaud the kind of thinking that kept everyone in this movie
from being pasty and British. You always knew that Ford was
clearly cooler than Arthur, and Mos Def’s a lead pipe
cinch for the job. Sadly, I have less applause for Mos Def’s
act itself. He does an okay job. But he swallows some great
lines and, in retrospect, he didn’t quite seem to . . .
get it. Still, you can’t be too tough on the guy. Comedy
is hard. British absurdist sci-fi comedy must be like sword
swallowing on a tightrope between bullet trains.
On the other, other hand, Sam Rockwell’s a swell Zaphod,
playing him like a Space Californian. Really it seems like an
oversight for this character to ever have been anything but
an American — loud, swaggering, dumb, larger than life
— hell, those don’t objectively describe me as a
human, but they sure do define me as an American. To a primarily
American audience the joke will likely be lost, but for those
of us who’ve regularly exposed our impressionable minds
to British comedy since childhood (especially those among us
who are technically British), Rockwell’s Zaphod is really,
truly just zis guy, you know?
Okay, all well and good. I can drop the insider references.
Yet the eternal question for genre movies remains: Does it suck?
I’m on a limb here, but I’m going to say that you,
the H2G2 fan (or confused passerby), will walk out of this movie
satisfied. Liberties were taken. There’s a Hollywood ending
with a romance so tacked on, you can actually see the thumb
tacks. Characters and scenes were added. Others were taken out.
But a surprising number of things you love weren’t taken
out, and all the changes were made to good — or at least
not terrible — effect.
If you tried H2G2 before and didn’t like it, you won’t
like it this time either. And my girlfriend is still probably not going
to get the jokes. But nothing will be ruined for long-time fans,
and for first-timers, it might make the whole thing a little more
palatable. Billy Bob won’t understand the Italian lyrics,
but he might just sit back and enjoy the music.