"Oh no, not again."
A bowl of petunias
day, author Douglas Adams and his agent Ed Victor had a
very heated argument. It took place during the interminable
development hell of the movie of Adams' science fiction
radio/novel hit. True to form - that is to say with a hefty
dose of surrealism - it was over the word 'cheese' (actually
it was 'cheesy' but then what follows wouldn't make sense).
How could a cult (Babel) fish-out-of-water story induce
such ire over some fermented curd? This would have been
beyond me if I hadn't instinctively understood both sides
of the argument simultaneously. Adams wanted to make Hitchhiker's on a Men In Black scale and Victor pointed
out, quite accurately in my view, that Hitchhiker's didn't lend itself to the big budget package and all that
would have to come with it. "Hitchhiker's is cheesy," he said despite the intellect and wit contained
within it. I can see what he means. Adams was not impressed.
Even the best of us, those of us having made a fortune from
musings about the night sky in Innsbruck, would be a trifle
miffed by any accusation of cheese. Ham, perhaps. Cheese?
Garth Jennings' interpretation of Adams' baby (with apologies
to Adams' real offspring and partner Jane Belson), it's
easy to appreciate both sides of that argument. All the
effects are in place (and very nice they are too) and most
of the essence of the first book adaptation of the radio
series is retained. Phew. There are several nods to Hollywood;
to be frank, they're significantly more than nods, more
like orders that will be strictly obeyed. The first is that
hapless Arthur Dent has to become heroic (in his own way,
bless him. He achieves this by queuing and breaking a chair).
Secondly he has to have a romantic goal (Trillian, naturally)
and the movie has to have a villain and a climax. Hitchhiker's feels like it disagrees with and fights against the prevailing
Hollywood wisdom but grudgingly concedes to all points.
Disney was probably quite insistent. Before he died, the
actual Uncle Walt wanted to make great art (it's a much
tougher gig once you've passed on) but these days Disney
is about money and you don't invest many millions of dollars
on some namby-pamby Brit radio show (Radio Four, no less)
unless you make it as audience friendly as possible.
under no misconceptions. That is not a political slogan
although it probably should be. Adams' work is very well
represented here and faithfully and lovingly crafted for
the screen. But it's still an intelligent, scattershot radio
show dressed up (quite beautifully) like a real film (nothing
wrong with that at all, as it is hugely entertaining). I
know the material very well and still was pleasantly surprised
by certain interpretations. CGI is used when CGI works.
Slartibartfast's 'shop floor' is epic and actually delivers
'awe'. The Jim Henson Creature Shop does a terrific job
on the creature designs (the Vogons are the stand out stars.
They are as if Mr. Creosote had a brace of children with
Winston Churchill) and the... wait. I'm getting ahead
of myself. And speaking of heads...
second head (a throwaway line in the radio show and a 'should
be thrown away' bane of the TV show) is actually quite nicely
done and doesn't render the character ridiculous in the
sense that you're always looking at the special effects.
Marvin's head is large (the brain the size of a planet doesn't
have to be literal) but all power to Warwick Davis, the
little guy inside the suit. Marvin's physical performance
is extremely good, the turn of that oversized noggin as
a joke's punch-line is very deftly handled. When he is shot
down at the climax, it's actually quite touching. Yes, we
are all used to Stephen Moore's vocal delivery and the TV
design (which amusingly pops up in a queue of all places).
But Alan Rickman's voice and character are so linked to
the Harrypotterverse (he plays potions master Snape in case
one of you didn't know) but it's a good voice and hearing
those oh-so familiar lines being given a different spin
is actually not such a bad thing.
good friend of Adams', Stephen Fry (who once smoked in one
of Adams' Porsches forcing him to sell it immediately) plays
the actual guide and he is damn near note perfect. It's
interesting to note that Peter Jones (the original radio
voice) was originally chosen for the movie (he's dead so
he's (a) cheap and (b) cheap). No clean recordings
of his original radio track were found. Trust the BBC not
to archive the important stuff. Zooey Deschanel is enchanting
as Trillian. You see photos of actors and you can't help
making snap judgements but until you see how someone moves
and the look in their eye (I believe Ms. Deschanel has two),
there's no in-road to the performance. She is well worth
Arthur's infatuation and while she was being fed to the
ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, I was anxious for a
Def plays Ford Prefect spaced out to the n'th degree (which
works very well). Arthur is fleshed out by The Office's
only identifiable human character, Martin Freeman. It's
a tough part (an everyman in a universe of oddity and eccentricity)
but Freeman's romantic attachment to Trillian is so lightly
played, his ordinariness so, so ordinary that he leads the
movie by his dressing gown belt. The hardest part of all
(Zaphod, not the whale) is made to look effortless by Sam
Rockwell's cavalier over-the-top and up-the-other-side turn.
As the bad guy in the first Charlie's Angels,
he was never less than fun to watch. Here, his thespian
instincts are pitched just right because get Zaphod wrong
and the entire edifice sort of implodes.
Hitchhiker's is also a smart movie and smart $45 million movies are not
exactly queuing up to be distributed. Not only is our hero
reading The Selfish Gene (written by Adams' friend Richard
Dawkins) at a fancy dress party but Arthur recognises a
bearded girl as Charles Darwin (with stuffed beagle under
her arm). How many folk from middle America are going to
snag those references? What would the Disney executive say?
Something like "Who cares?" For once, I can say
that I enjoyed a film tremendously without really caring
for the characters. I have had the radio show and the TV
series intravenously fed to me over the last 27 years. Knowing
what I know, it's impossible to have emotional attachments
to these characters but given that, there is always the
case of the 'new material', the stuff that Adams managed
to pen before his sudden and wretchedly awful demise, in
a Santa Barbara gymnasium of all places.
villain (the upper half of whom is played by John Malkovich)
wants Zaphod to bring him a gun. This is no ordinary weapon.
When fired, it makes the victim take on the point of view
of the one who fired it. Despite the rather blunt character
revelation that this device literally brings forth, it is
used well and sparingly. Figuring out her life up to that
point, Trillian makes the rather strident point of female
superiority by announcing "It won't affect me. I'm
already a woman." I may be way off target here but
that does sound like Douglas Adams' voice... Did I mention
that I'm prepared to be proved wrong?
what's it all about?
Brit Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford hitch a ride
on a monstrous slab of a spaceship seconds before the Earth
is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. After
being ejected into space, they are picked up by the Heart
of Gold, a ship powered by the revolutionary infinite improbability
drive. In charge of the 2001-inspired craft is Zaphod Beeblebrox,
an ego driven, two headed alien who wants to know the question,
the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything
(the answer's already been figured out; it's 42). Moments
before the computer (called 'the Earth' - yes, our Earth)
has this answer (to the question of the question) it's blown
up. The mice were furious.
from that fairly accurate paragraph of the plot of Hitchhiker's,
it's understandable why the movie lounged about in the airport
terminal of development hell for so long. How do you sell
that idea for a movie? The only way new Disney could appreciate
- Adams' books sold millions... Could it be that the
fiscal success of the novel greased the wheels? Heavens,
you. Sass that hoopy, Ford Prefect. Here's a frood who really
knows where his towel is..."