"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," by Douglas Adams, began as a radio play 25 years ago. It was an ingenious satire of science and science fiction. Eventually, the radio program became five books, a BBC miniseries, and a landmark computer game. Adams’s many fans have longed for a big-budget film. Now they’ve got it. The result is an outré cult movie, by turns inspired and embarrassing. But it’s made with such love, it carries the day.
The hero is Arthur Dent, Martin Freeman, less droll than exasperated. He’s awakened one morning to the rumble of bulldozers. A construction crew has come to demolish his house to make way for a bypass. Arthur’s friend Ford Prefect, played by the rapper Mos Def, tells him not to worry about it. The whole Earth is about to be demolished by the Vogons, also for a bypass. Ford and Arthur thumb a ride on one of the destructor ships.
The Vogons are giant puppets created by Jim Henson’s creature shop, a nice change from computer graphics. They are ugly, shuffling things with permanently hunched shoulders. They write bad poetry as a weapon. They have dead souls — and they run things. Douglas Adams believed that the greatest evil in the Universe is bureaucracy.
Ford and Arthur get thrown into space. They are rescued by a passing spaceship which, if physics has laws, is guilty of a felony. Its pilot is Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sam Rockwell. He is the President of the Galaxy, elected because he’s too stupid to do any harm. He has two heads. That special effect is a big miscalculation, too disturbing to be funny.
Also on board is Trillian, played by the offbeat and arrestingly beautiful Zooey Deschanel. She’s Arthur’s "one that got away". Zaphod stole her at a party with the greatest pickup line in the Universe: "Is this guy boring you? Why don’t you talk to me? I’m from another planet."
Adams struggled to tame this screenplay before he died. He’s expanded the love story – a good idea, saccharine in the execution. He’s also come up with new stuff, like a scary villain played by John Malkovich, and an alien church service that’s the best gag in the movie. New material by Adams is like the last of the wine.
Like Lewis Carrol, much of the joy in Adams’s writing was his play with language. The BBC miniseries had the space to preserve a lot of that. But a movie must find an equivalent in images. It looks a lot the like work of Terry Gilliam. Occasionally, there is even grandeur.
The depth of Adams’s ideas could get lost in the giddy nonsense of the novels. Here, they add up to something profound. Adams believed that the Universe is a joke. Trying to make sense of it will just depress you. The right response is to laugh like hell, and get busy living.
"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.