Friday, September 16, 2005

MOVIES: Don't "Hitch" a ride with this "Guide"

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Honestly, I rarely go into watching a movie hoping it will suck. Life's too short to spend watching crap, so that's why I rarely review stuff I just know I won't like (hence no 'XXX 2: State of the Union' review for me). What really stinks is when a movie you're kinda hoping will be good is not. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is one whopping big disappointment. It mangles most of what I loved best about Douglas Adams' classic comic science fiction novel, yet it also fails in trying to win over new fans. It jettisons wit for clich├ęd Hollywood chase scenes and love stories.

I dunno - maybe the time for a "Hitchhiker's" movie is past. It does seem a bit of its time to me, in the pre-Internet early 1980s when I first read it. But it's still a wonderfully funny book (originally a radio serial), as hapless Arthur Dent and alien Ford Prefect escape the demolition of Earth for wild adventures in a surreal, comic universe as they search for the big question - "what's it all about?"

First-time director Garth Jennings manages to do OK with the first 20 minutes or so of the flick — the Earth being destroyed is kind of hard to mess up too much — but as soon as the action moves into outer space, the whole affair takes on the moldy tones of a failed "Saturday Night Live" sci-fi parody, with mediocre effects and choppy editing. "Hitchhiker's" is rushed and sloppy - and it didn't have to be. Big chunks of the novel are chopped out and replaced with banal scenes (an entirely new character played by John Malkovich is added that serves little or no purpose).

Here's a good example of the movie's tone vs. the book, with one of my favorite little exchanges early on in the novel:
"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine month."
"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything."
"But the plans were on display ..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a torch."
"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard."

Here's the same sequence, more or less, in the movie:
"The plans were on display."
"They were in a cellar!"

Now, I know a movie's going to have considerable changes from its source, yadda yadda. I don't mind if it captures the spirit of the work, such as Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." But the "Hitchhiker's" movie only fitfully does. The gentle wit, rambling digressions and much of the "guide" itself are gone (they tell you a towel is important for interstellar hitchhikers, but they never even tell you why - the blasphemy!).

The plot wasn't the point with "Hitchhiker's", but the filmmakers don't seem to understand that. About halfway through it becomes a chase movie starring the Vogons vs. the heroes. And don't get me started on the ending, which utterly tears apart the book to graft on an unconvincing love story for Arthur and Trillian and manages to recreate the entire Earth as it was, people and all, with no lasting reprecussions.

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There are parts of the movie that work well -- the casting is mostly adequate. Martin Freeman from TV's "The Office" portrays Arthur Dent's nebbishy everyman well, and while Mos Def is an ethnically different Ford Prefect, he's solid. Alan Rickman's snide voice is perfect for the depressed Marvin the Robot. The highlight is Sam Rockwell doing a cowboy rock-star turn as Zaphod Beeblebrox. His character's two heads in the book are reworked for the screen in a rather silly and incomprehensible way, but basically the guy's still the same madman. Rockwell has got more energy than anyone else in the movie, while everyone else seems a tad subdued. None of the actors really embarrass themselves, though.

That responsibility goes to the eviscerated script and Jennings' "can you see how much money I'm spending" direction. Y'know, the old BBC television series of the 1980s had a special effects budget of about $22.50, but somehow seems more sincere and funny than this overblown muddle. I've been hard on "Hitchhiker's," I know, and I'll admit there are many worse movies out there than this. But compared to its beloved source, it's a pale, lifeless imitation.
** of four

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