The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Directed by Garth Jennings
Screenplay by Douglas Adams and Karey Kilpatrick
The new film from Garth Jennings, with a screenplay by series creator the late Douglas Adams and Karey Kilpatrick is a confusing (if occasionally amusing) tangle. Trying to be all things to all people, it falls between its various ambitions and ends up being rather pointless and forgettable, like a bad shaggy dog story.
Jennings can't seem to decide whether he wants to recreate Adams' original off-the-wall science-fiction send-up radio show, to create an homage to the cheesily-charming naivete of the low-budget BBC television series, or to adopt the more sophisticated philosophical and satirical tone with which Adam's invested his novelization of his earlier work. Any one of these might have been a good choice, but vacillating between them leaves the audience baffled and worn-out.
The screwball nature of Adams original plot depended on a kind of "magical realism" for its effect - it originated on radio, where engaging the listener's imagination allows all kinds of impossible situations to develop without challenging the suspension of disbelief - which allowed the audience to follow the impossible twists and turns without feeling any need to compare them with "reality."
The glue that held the whole thing together was the perpetually-in-over-his-head Arthur Dent (played in the film by Martin Freeman), whose good-natured cluelessness was engaging and more true to our own lives than most of us would care to admit. He was a point of reference as a believably, engagingly human character around whose steadfast (and in the context, absurd and futile) bourgeois value-system the extravagances of the situations and characters could unfold.
Without that grounding, the suggestion of an authentic inner life, much of Adams' invention would seem simply disconnected, cheap-laugh silliness - as it does here, since that quality of Arthur Dent is missing, that sincerity that makes not only his character, but also the much-more-over-the-top creations with whom he interacts, accessible. This is the main thing that the film gets wrong.
What makes stories compelling is the characters. If we don't care about the characters, we won't care about what happens to them - no matter how "dramatic" the situations in which they are involved may be. And we learn about characters through their interactions with the world around them and especially with other characters. So character development is at the heart of effective story telling.
That is something that Jennings - who comes from a background in music videos , a discipline much more concerned with the dazzling surface "look" of things than with sustaining emotional engagement or intellectual interest - apparently didn't realize going into this film, although perhaps he will have learned it here.
As with many films adapted from much longer works (the TV series was many hours long and the novelization ran to four volumes), Jennings also falls into the trap of trying to cram too many of the events of the full series into an hour and fifty-minute film. Events by themselves are not important. It is events happening to people, people reacting to events, being changed by them and in turn altering the further course of events that creates a sequence that involves us, that makes us want to see what happens next. But Jennings sacrifices character time after time in his rush to get to the next scene.
This is certainly not his sole responsibility. Adams himself wrote the original treatment of the screenplay, and Karey Kilpatrick gave the (credited) final polish. It is the screenplay that lurches forward from incident to incident without taking the time to interest us in who these people we are watching might be. Jennings might have changed the tone - have taken the time to allow the characters to reveal themselves more deeply (something good actors can do in spite of dialogue and script!), but that was not a choice he made - and it would admittedly have been a risky one for an untried, first-time director.
The result is that the characters are sadly lifeless and two dimensional. There are some good jokes here, and some situations that could have evolved into painfully funny satire - but they don't stay with us because it is impossible to see these people as "real" in any - even fabulous or allegorical - sense.
When a film succeeds, it is most often because of an effective collaboration between the screenwriter and the director- the latter building on and interpreting the good material supplied by the former. When a film fails, it is likewise usually due to a failure of the writer to supply good material and the director to make good use of what he gets. This is what seems to have happened here.
Adams - who died while still at work on the screenplay - doesn't appear to have edited and focused his script sufficiently - to have provided those moments that would have allowed the audience to discover the characters more fully. In polishing the work of a cult-figure like Adams, it would not be far-fetched to imagine that Kilpatrick felt she was seriously constrained from doing anything more than "tweaking" the master's work.
In the same manner, an inexperienced director like Jennings, on a relatively big-budget film with a lot of expectations riding on it from a devoted fan-base is far more likely to take a conservative approach to the material - film what he is given - than begin trimming, rearranging, shifting the emphasis of the screenplay. It is after all, the work of Douglas Adams that is the big draw here, not the work of Garth Jennings.
The result is that this was a difficult position for both Kilpatrick and Jennings, and they both played it safe, and what they came up with was film that is certainly perfectly safe - but like many very safe things, also pretty unexciting.
The cast do an adequate job, but they don't have much room to work. Freeman has the right affect for Arthur, although his bewilderment sometimes comes off more like dullness and his combination of delight and terror at what he witnesses, which is a conflict that is a charming part of who he is, is sadly underplayed.
For the story (and the film) to work, we have to identify with Arthur's fantastic predicament the same way we identify with Dorothy's in Oz. But in spite of a game and amiable try, given the rush the script is in and the limited amount of sincere interaction with others Arthur is allowed, Freeman is not able to develop that empathy.
As the brother from another planet, Ford Prefect, who takes Arthur beyond where man has ever gone, rapper Mos Def offers a free and easy charm that ought to have been built into something more thoughtful - if there had been time - using his "go with the flow" attitude and innate optimism as a foil for Arthur's anxiety, Zaphod's impulsive recklessness and Marvin's pessimism.
Which brings us to Marvin - a wonderful satiric invention in the novels, who embodies the trap of thinking - embodying Joseph Conrad's contention that "reflective thought is the most pernicious habit mankind has yet developed." Marvin is a highly-intelligent android ("brain the size of a planet," as he modestly describes himself) who is also a prototype in an experiment to give androids "authentic" synthetic human personalities. As so many prototypes turn out to be, Marvin is a failure - his artificial personality is that of a chronically depressed know-it-all.
This creates enormous possibilities for satirical comments on optimism and pessimism, on intelligence and self-awareness, on the limitations of knowledge, on narcissism, on science itself, and much more - some of which Adams develops in the other media. But here, although voiced by the incomparable Alan Rickman, Marvin is a one-note, one-joke presence whose "personality" - essential to making the character work - is never allowed to grow. As a result his condition is more annoying than amusing.
Sam Rockwell plays Zaphod Beeblebrox - President of the Galaxy - the most difficult of Adams' characters to bring to life for a variety of reasons. First, he has two heads and three arms - a condition that is much easier for an audience to accept in their imagination than in more literal form. As realized here, both the third arm effect and the second head effect seem artificial (not with the cheerful cheesiness of the BBC version or of early Star-Trek, but rather merely inept in such a big-budget effort)) and therefore distracting.
Second, as a personality, he is broader and more of a caricature to begin with (Rockwell amusingly gives him a certain familiar combination of faux "folksy" charm and smarmy self-absorption). It is Zaphod above all who needs all the power of our complete investment in Arthur Dent to make him seem even possible - let alone "real." Although Rockwell makes a strong effort and has some good scenes, it is not enough.
Zooey Deschanel plays "the girl" - originally a marginal role (she gets eaten by a space-monster at the end of the first book) fleshed out here for what must have seemed like a good reason at the time, but doesn't any more. To her credit, she goes through the motions with energy and good-will.
Another confusing dichotomy in the film is the use of CGI graphics. There is an unbalanced combination of sophisticated computer imagery and fairly weak effects. The sets look more like traditional science-fiction-film scenery than like anything we are supposed to believe is "real."
Yet the CGI graphic sequences go to a lot of trouble to create a kind of reference to "reality." They seem too long and too full of themselves - a sort of million-dollar-film-maker-version of "look what I can do Mommy!" and it is hard to see how they fit into the film. Their technical sophistication distracts us from the characters and confuses us about what sort of a film we are actually watching - is it Spaceballs or is it 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Watching The Hitchhikers Guide was not an unpleasant experience by any means, but neither was it exciting, delightful, thought-provoking or anything more than a mildly amusing two hours. Not all films can be great, of course, or even very good. But it's hard to see potential - which Adams' imaginary world definitely had - wasted. And it is just hard to take, that enough money to feed all the hungry people in America for a year is invested for something that ends up being just about mediocre.
That's my take on it. What's yours?