The Hitchhiker’s Guide

One of the coveted rules of hitchhiking is don’t take a ride to a place you don’t want to go. This might sound simple, but when you’ve been standing at an off ramp for hours the idea of leaving is more than enough justification. The new film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy transports us from one side of the galaxy to the other only to reveal that the underlying force in the universe is as charmless and ubiquitous as a strip mall.
Based on the work of Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide is a fast-paced disaster in the making, collecting reasonably bad skits, occasionally bad science and philosophy, and really bad jokes into a twister of a bad movie. At the center of this storm is a cold, agnostic laugh of the author – Adams – who looked to the heavens and saw a place a lot like England circa 1975 or thereabouts.
The story follows Englishman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), who wakes up one day to find his home being demolished to make room for a highway bypass. Dent is surprised when his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) stops by to help, but he’s even more shocked when his buddy tells him he’s from another planet and the Earth is about to be destroyed. (You guessed it: An intergalactic highway bypass needs to be constructed.) Dent is suspicious even when he notices a strange ship hovering in the sky.
Ford sticks out his thumb as the beams begin hitting the earth and the pair hitch a ride with one of the ships that just vaporized the planet. When the inhabitants of the space vessel – the dreaded bureaucratic Vogons – discover Ford and Dent they stage a mock trial and sentence the pair to death.
When all seems lost Ford tries one last-ditch effort to get a ride and the pair find themselves aboard the Heart of Gold. The ship was stolen by the galaxy’s president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), as he kidnapped himself and left for adventure. Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a human Earth woman who had had a brief affair with Dent, is also in toe, and the story suffocates this romantic triangle plot under its mass. 
Plowing straight forward, we learn that Beeblebrox is in search of the ultimate question in the universe. To do this the small crew must travel to the distant end of the galaxy, evade the Vogon army, and come to grip with the strange universe we live in, which is a lot like the DMV on a Friday afternoon.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide the fantastic is debased and revealed as utterly ordinary while the ordinary is so gruelingly mundane and banal that you will want to tear your eyes out. This isn’t so much a fault of the film as a theme in the original books, as far as I can see, and it undoubtedly has its admirers among cynics, nihilists and super-science geeks, who always like to be in on a secret joke.
This gloomy mood permeates the film, robbing the sometimes-great special effects of their power to awe us. What does it matter if the Vogan ships are big and terrifying if they’re filled with petty bourgeois? The bored supercomputer given the task of finding the meaning of life looks like exactly what he turns out to be: A bored child watching TV. Planets are manufactured like prefabricated homes and constructed in a big Home Depot at the far end of the galaxy.
It’s like being told the mystery of sex can be explained by pheromones: Both disappointing and insufficient.
Speaking of sex, the romance between Trillian and Dent seems like an unpleasant afterthought. The only way these two characters could have chemistry is if they were ground up in a blender and mixed together in a test tube.      
The comedic bits are uneven. The satirical attack against bureaucracy in the form of the Vogans gets old and Beeblebrox’s schizophrenic humor is less amusing than annoying.  Mos Def and Martin Freeman are talented, but so much of the humor is clouded in in-jokes that those who haven’t read the books are apt to feel left out.
The best scene involves a missile that had been transformed into a giant sperm whale. Falling to the surface of a foreign planet, the creature mulls over its existence and peculiar situation. In this one scene Adams allows the marvelous to intersect with the ordinary, offering an occasion for a clever metaphysical discussion on the nature of being. A collection of scenes like this would have made a much better movie.
Purist will be divided on the film as they usually are, but those who are unfamiliar with Adams’ books will probably be underwhelmed by the film.


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