This month sees the release of the hugely anticipated Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a film awash in exasperated wonder at the worlds boundless propensity to simultaneously astound us and drive us completely bonkers. Until it blows up. At which point we dust off, down a pint, grab our bath towel and move on.
This is the basic premise of Hitchhiker, which British music video director Garth Jennings has, at long last, adapted from the first of Douglas Adams much-loved series of novels. The film opens with Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman of The Office) trying to stave off a construction crew attempting to demolish his house to make room for a bypass. He is interrupted by his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who tells him first that Dent is an alien and second that an interstellar construction crew is about to demolish Earth to make way for a bypass.
After a surprisingly measly protest from Dent, the two scoot off the planet and take to hitchhiking their way into increasingly zany and arbitrary adventures. These include being picked up by a spaceship which doubles as an infinite improbability machine and learning that Earth was a giant supercomputer designed to solve the question for the meaning of life (the answer is 42, by the way). They stumble into Fords old drinking buddy and current galactic president, Zaphod Beezlebox, played by Sam Rockwell, who does a fantastic and unconventional riff on George W. Bush.
And then a lot of other stuff happens. The movie is so full of zaniness it feels frantic the plot cant pay attention to itself and characters suddenly change without any explanation.
Perhaps this is because the film is so indebted to its source material. To those without a familiarity with the books, I would imagine this adaptation would seem like a series of punch lines without the preceding jokes. While constantly bemoaning lifes contradictions and confusions, the film is concurrently inundating the audience with messiness.
And then, occasionally, its stunningly beautiful. Midway through the film, a gorgeous scene featuring a whale inexplicably falling from the sky reminds viewers of Adams ability to both lament the entire business of living while still being awestruck by it. Unfortunately, the scene, like the whale, comes out of nowhere.
The performances are equally unreliable. Best of show goes to an extremely likeable Bill Nighy playing an alien underling whose polite befuddlement is so convincing, it takes a moment to figure out whether or not hes hilarious (he is).
Otherwise, the film squanders its talent. Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) makes a cameo as quick as it is funny, and Alan Rickman plays a depressed robot, though for a good deal of his performance it seems like Rickman is being played by a robot.
Ultimately, whats disappointing about the film is how mundane it feels. Romping about in the echoes of Adams often exuberant wit, the film seems limp and lazy by comparison. The apparent resurrection of all life on Earth seemed so uneventful, I had to be reminded it even happened. Perhaps the filmmakers, whose characters endlessly remind each other, Dont panic! should take their mantra less seriously. A movie this relentlessly wacky demands more discipline if its audiences are going to follow it to the literal end of the universe.