Movie Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It breaks my heart to say it, but this movie is not very good.
I'm sure that there are a million fanboys out there right now screaming in nasal anguish over what they see as a travesty to all that is good and decent, but I can't bring myself to join them. It's difficult to get vitriolic about how poorly the screenplay was adapted from the original material when Douglas Adams himself gets top writing credit for said screenplay. You can't very well curse somebody out for tarnishing the memory of themselves.
I'm not some kind of insatiable purist who will condemn this movie simply because it does not agree to the letter with the older versions. The story of The Guide has been adapted back and forth across different media from radio to books to computer games to television, stretching back in time nearly to my own birth. Like the oral traditions of old, each time it went on to a new "storyteller", the narrative was slightly changed to iron out mistakes, make improvements, or to enhance it for that particular medium. I did not go in expecting the movie to be an exact point for point duplicate of the book (which is my favorite variation on the saga). I also did not expect, however, for the changes that were made to be pointless, overwhelming, and detrimental. In my opinion, you can make all the changes you want in your adaptation, but the changes have to be improvements.
It seems to me that this screenplay was written by giving the book the 'ol Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie treatment. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie is a cop out of a film wherein a collection of classic Warner Brothers shorts are stitched together with splices of linking animation that ostensibly turn them into a feature length movie. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy plays out in much the same way. It's like they took a copy of the book, cut out their favorite sequences with a pair of scissors, and then taped them all to the wall. From there, they shifted the scraps around until they found the sequence in which they would have to do the least amount of "bridge writing" in between them in order to pass it off as a coherent film.
Even then, they don't completely succeed. Many of the scenes that Guide fans will recognize are whittled down so severely that they play out as little more than a set of visual Cliffs Notes. I realize that concessions must be made in the interest of running time, but when you're cutting out the jokes in order to rush to the next scene which has also been stripped of all jokes, you're not really crafting a comedy anymore, are you? The film had already started to alienate me during the breakneck exposition in a brushed off bit of dialog in which Arthur tells Mr. Prosser that he found the plans for the demolition of his house "in a cellar".
That's it. "In a cellar."
If you're familiar with the book, you understand how this is a vacuum where there used to be funny. If you haven't read the book, you probably won't even realize that there was supposed to be a joke there at all. That joke void is a metaphor for the entire film. And it also brings me to my next point.
So much important exposition and explanation has been cut out of the film that I believe one must read the book before seeing the movie in order to even understand it. For example, there are so few words spent on explaining the Infinite Improbability Drive that I hesitate to believe that anyone who didn't already know what it was going into the movie would understand all the language about "achieving normality", or why the ship pops into various nonsense forms when the drive is engaged, or why pushing the big button that looks like a bloodshot eyeball (?) would turn two missiles into a whale and a bowl of petunias. Or why the doors on the Heart of Gold sigh happily every time they open or close. Or why it's important to know where your towel is. Or why Ford and Arthur have to drink three pints and eat peanuts before they are beamed aboard the Vogon ship. Or how they got beamed aboard a Vogon ship in the first place, as the Vogons don't want them there...
I could go on all night about how the changes that were made hurt the story, but there's no point in it. Why should I waste the next hour ranting on and on about how they manufactured a cliché love triangle, or how they decimated Zaphod's likability by showing the tragic results of his stupidity, or how they pulled an unnecessary super happy "American movie" ending out of their ass? Why should I complain that they completely removed the comedy value from the Heart of Gold's food replicators by making them give you exactly what you want, or from Deep Thought by eliminating the Science vs. Philosophy debate that it sparks? And why should I even mention that they turn Trillian from being a sharp, collected genius into a flirty, emotionally unstable girl in boyshorts and knee socks? I'm sure you can find all those rants and more all over the web by now. Instead, I'm going to close with the thought that consumed me as I watched this movie turn the deftly brushed paintings of Douglas Adams' prose into a plodding PowerPoint presentation of a movie.
It reminded me of my The Real Ghostbusters figures.
When I was a kid, I would often reenact sequences from the movie Ghostbusters using my toys from its cartoon spin-off. Of course, as a ten year old, my recollection of the nuances of the film were hazy, as was my understanding of many of the jokes. So I just made stuff up to fill in the gaps between what I could remember. My adolescent mind didn't churn out the kind of coherent storyline that Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd could, mostly because they never considered options such as Peter Venkman making out with a Snork. I also didn't have a Walter Peck action figure, so I used Papa Smurf. He was neither the correct color nor scale, but he had a beard and no dick, so that was close enough for me. You get the idea.
Watching this movie and expecting to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is like watching me play with my action figures and expecting to see Ghostbusters. You may see a few things you recognize here and there, you may even see a few things that you guiltily enjoy, but by the end you'll just feel like whomever is responsible for what you've just seen has no idea what they're doing and needs to be grounded for a month.