I've never gotten to read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HGG), despite the fact that I happen to own a copy. Or rather, my wife does but she read it before I got my hands on it. By the time we saw the movie, it was too late to catch up, so to speak, so I went in to HGG a newbie.
The jury's still out as to whether or not this helped my viewing experience. I know my wife wasn't thrilled with the movie, mostly "because they changed a lot." That said, the nature of HGG seems to be mutable, seeing as it was originally crafted as a radio play and became a novel afterwards. And given the fact that Douglas Adams worked on the movie screenplay, it's hard to argue that what's on screen isn't what he intended.
But what the heck WAS on screen? I'm still not sure.
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a regular working British shlub. We don't know what he does, but we do know that Arthur owns a home in the middle of nowhere. And that Arthur's home is in the path of a construction company who needs to build a road through it.
The irony of course is that while Dent's worrying about the destruction of his home, he has a much bigger problem: the destruction of the Earth.
It seems Earth, much like Dent's house, is in the path of a new space highway and is slated for demolition. Fortunately, Dent knows Ford Prefect (Mos Def). Prefect is not all he seems: he's an alien, a hitchhiker to be precise. Lucky Dent gets taken along for the ride just as the world gets blown up.
We don't learn much about Dent except for his missed chance at love. At a costume party, Dent met the love of his life, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Only he blew it and she left with the world-slumming Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). Beeblebrox is a lot like Owen Wilson minus the crooked nose, complete with the southern drawl and "far out, dude!" attitude. Only he has an extra head. And an extra arm.
It turns out Trillian, formerly known as Trisha, left Earth too. Extremely unlikely circumstances unite Dent with Trillian. Literally in this case, as the Improbability Drive that runs Beebelbrox's ship, "The Heart of Gold." This big golf ball of a ship is powered by Eddie the eternally upbeat computer (Thomas Lennon) and Marvin (Warwick Davis, voiced by Alan Rickman) the eternally downbeat robot.
There's just one small problem: Beeblebrox is president of the galaxy (I'm guessing our galaxy). And he stole the Heart of Gold to find the question to Life, the Universe, and Everything. We already know the answer is 42. It's the question that matters.
Pursuing our intrepid heroes, if they can be called that, are the Zogons. Big, blubbery walrus-type creatures that are enamored with bureaucracy, these walking puppets are breathlessly brought to life by the Jim Henson studio and they steal every scene they're in. Interspersed throughout the movie is the Hitchhiker's Guide itself, voiced by Stephen Frey. Using Flash-type animations, we get explanations of just about everything, from the identification of the three most intelligence races on Earth to how improbability drives work.
All of this is displayed in breathtaking, dizzying detail. Special effects abound, aliens of all sorts slink by in the background, and structures of massive proportions loom over the cast. The FX detracted from the plot. It's hard to laugh at the jokes whizzing by when you're still trying to figure out "how did they DO that?"
There's also the so-creepy-he-must-be-a-villain Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) who has no actual relevance to the film. But boy does he get an intro!
Given that the very fabric of reality is perpetually in question, between the probability machine and the fact that the Earth blows up in the first ten minutes of the film, it's also a bit difficult to figure out what the heck is going on. Combine this blink-and-you'll-miss-it plot and the fact that British filmmakers seem to have killed off all of their sound artists such that everything everyone says is perpetually drowned out by background noise, and…well it all gives me a bit of a headache.
That said, the movie has moments of brilliance. Watching a singing chorus of dolphins saying farewell to the Earth is a rare and special treat. Hearing the last thoughts of a newly formed whale as it hurtles towards certain doom is hysterical. The insight of a flowerpot hurtling towards a similar doom is even more amusing. And don't get me started on the nefarious plans of mice.
In the end, I'm glad I didn't read the book. HHG is an insane mess, but it's a lovable, nutty mess that's quite comfortable with its own twisted philosophy. It just feels like the first half of another film. If we get a sequel, things might begin to make more sense.
Or maybe not.