Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reviewed

The books are shelved in the sci-fi section because they involve people from other planets. And when people talk about them at parties they call them comedies because they’re funny. But really, deep down at its heart, the _Hitchhiker’s_ saga is a tragedy. It’s about …

[The books][books] are shelved in the sci-fi section because they involve people from other planets. And when people talk about them at parties they call them comedies because they’re funny. But really, deep down at its heart, the _Hitchhiker’s_ saga is a tragedy. It’s about a man — just one man — who first loses his house. And then his entire planet is demolished. Anything he could possibly call home is gone. There’s no reason why it’s taken from him. He didn’t do anything wrong. It just… happens, the way a lot of bad things seem to.

Then things really turn sour. He is taken back in time by accident and deposited back on planet Earth — and instead of discovering some edenic paradise full of ivy leaves and berries, he finds out that everything Earth was supposed to be went wrong, right at the start. The primitive cavemen that we should have descended from — the ones who were silently working out the answer to the [Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything][ultimate] — were overrun by boring, dead-brained office drones. So maybe nothing really worth remembering was lost when the Earth was destroyed.

But never forget that the books are funny. Really funny. That’s what makes them great: they make you cackle with joy, just reading the words on the page. But when you reach the last page and close the book, there is an inescapable melancholy, the kind that leaves you pondering the bottom of a teacup days and months and years later.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this new-fangled _Hitchhiker’s_ movie — at least among the nerd zealots that have been following the movie ever since it was first leaked that [Mos Def][mosdef] would appear in it. The main point of contention is: is is true to the source material? The question may make sense when you’re talking about Tolkien’s work, for example, but here it’s impossible to define what is definitive. Is it the radio series? Is it the books? What about that video game from the 80s that had yet another rendition of the plot? [Douglas Adams][dna] himself didn’t care about staying true to what he had written.

So when it comes to this new-fangled _Hitchhiker’s_ movie, the only question that counts is, does it come even close to expressing this weird complex lovelorn snarkiness?

The answer: sort of. You have to look carefully because the plot is weighed down with an industrial-grade romance between Arthur, the aforementioned man who loses everything, and Trillian, the only other survivor of Earth, who seems to not care really at all that everyone she ever knew has been reduced to space kibble.

I don’t think the romance was a bad idea in itself. It offers a frame on which the plot can be built — and coherent plots were always hard to come by in the _Hitchhiker_ novels — and it gives the writers a way to personalize the loss that is the bedrock of the story. When the camera moves through the debris of the just-destroyed Earth, it doesn’t show frozen wristwatches or shattered toys.

It shows the screen of Arthur’s cell phone: the last thing he thought he would see. A snapshot he took at a party the night before of himself and Trillian, just as they met. Just before she asks him to go to Madagascar with her (no matter that that’s pretty much filched from _Almost Famous_, which almost certainly swiped it from some other movie). Just before he told her no, he could not go anywhere but further into his boring life. Or — more accurately, he wouldn’t.

But by the end of the movie, you’re drowning in that sticky sweet romance. That slow yielding of shy loneliness to brave warmth that seems to happen in every movie about smart people falling in love. There’s one too many super-lovey-dovey monologues and the writers knew it — right after the worst of them, the hyper-intelligent mice about to extract Arthur’s brain declares it was utter tripe. Which is true enough, but admitting your faults doesn’t really excuse them. All of us had to sit through that crap.

The movie gets a lot right, though, and it isn’t just by sticking strictly to what Douglas Adams wrote. The traps on Vogsphere, for example, that thwack anyone in the forehead every time they have an idea are not only funny but also partly explain why the Vogons — the creatures that do the actual dirty work of destroying the Earth — have become the horrid things they are.

It’s the small moments that work the best. The look on Arthur’s face when he finally finds a genuine cup of tea to drink. The gun whose only purpose is to force your target to adopt your own point of view on things. The peril-sensitive sunglasses that only dyed-in-the-wool fans will notice — and then there’s the scene where the writers screw with those fans by having Marvin the Paranoid Android seemingly die three books too early. The extended musical prologue starring dolphins too smart to stick around for the apocalypse.

Perhaps the most subtly chilling moment of the movie comes when Arthur walks out of his reconstructed house — in this version of the story, the planet Magrathea is where Arthur is given a chance to return to a pristine and happy Earth Mark Two — and there he is, surrounded by a silent horde of Vogons. The very creatures that destroyed the Earth in the first place.

It raises wholly new questions, of what home really means, of whether anything lost can be rediscovered, of whether complacence is ever anything but self-delusion. And it’s smart enough not to linger on this shot, to leap almost immediately into a madcap chase/battle — to leave all good questions unanswered.

[books]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitchhiker%27s_guide
[ultimate]: http://groups-beta.google.com/group/alt.fan.douglas-adams/msg/d1064f7b27808692
[zealots]: http://planetmagrathea.com/index2.html
[mosdef]: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0080049/
[dna]: http://www.douglasadams.com/dna/

Article © 2005 by Chris Klimas