Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whether you prefer the radio show or the novels, is one of the undoubted classics of modern science fiction, and pretty much every work of comic sci-fi made since owes something to it. The film was supposedly in development hell for 24 years before finally being made, sadly only seeing a release after Douglas Adams passed away. I love the novels, and I really wanted to feel the same way about the film, but it just feels like something’s missing.
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up one morning to find bulldozers on his front lawn about to demolish his house to make space for a new bypass. After being dragged to the pub by his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), he learns that this is the least of his worries, since the entire Earth is about to be demolished by an alien race called the Vogons in order to make space for a new hyperspace bypass. In order to escape the demolition, Ford hitches a lift aboard the Heart of Gold, a spaceship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, and piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the President of the Galaxy.
The premise is essentially the same as previous incarnations, but the plot differs considerably later on. Fortunately, all of the requisite Hitchhiker’s Guide weirdness is on full display, and the script is consistently funny, with a couple of brilliant gags involving the strange things the Infinite Improbability Drive has to do in order to work. There’s very little to complain about with regards the cast: Martin Freeman is very good as the confused Englishman hopelessly out of his depth; but the standouts are definitely Mos Def and Sam Rockwell.
Despite bearing no resemblance to the Ford of the novels, Def is an excellent fit for the Betelgeusian hitchhiker who doesn’t quite understand Earth, trying to shake hands with, and almost being run over by, a car in his introductory scene. The fact that Rockwell shines in this film should come as no surprise to those familiar with his work, and he has a magnificently insane turn as the three-armed, two-headed, frequently drunk Zaphod. And Stephen Fry as the Guide itself is an absolute delight.
So why is the film not a classic worthy of being placed alongside the radio show and the novels? It’s very hard to explain, but it just doesn’t feel like The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Despite the fact that Adams had a hand in the screenplay, and the screenplay is very funny, it’s Hitchhiker’s by way of Hollywood, and therein lies the problem. It’s lost some of the original’s quirky Britishness, and while the humour is still funny, it feels broader and less pointed than the original. It’s the difference between a custard pie to the face and a perfectly timed pun.
Don’t take away from this review that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a bad film, because it most certainly is not. Honestly, if you ignore the source material, there’s really not much wrong with it: it has a strong script and an outstanding cast. All the same, while I always try to judge adaptations as if the original never existed, in this case I cannot, because I love the novels too much; it’s a good film, but it never feels quite like a Hitchhiker’s Guide film to me.