The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

There is a phrase that is often used to describe a point where something is no longer worth watching. That phrase is ‘jumped the shark’, and has its origins in an episode of the tedious sit-com Happy Days. During the screening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I realised that there was room for a new phrase with a similar meaning, and that phrase is ‘switched the windscreen wipers on’.

I suspect that these things have a certain inevitability to them, that if you have the correct elements in place then the joke will naturally appear in the script without any influence from the writers, directors or producers, but essentially it is this; if, in the plot, you have a) an unfamiliar vehicle, b) a frantic moment of tension, and c) an inexperienced driver, then a + b + c = d) the character will inadvertently switch on the windscreen wipers while trying to start the vehicle or launch a missile or some other action. This is even more likely to happen if said vehicle is a vehicle that isn’t likely to have windscreen wipers, such as a spaceship or a submarine.

Here in Hitchhiker’s it happens when Arthur Dent is attempting to fly a spaceship. It’s a lazy, obvious and unoriginal joke and its presence in this film is just one example of how a significant proportion of the wit and intelligence of the source material has been abandoned in favour of cheap slapstick and formulaic writing. I noticed this early on, when one of my favourite scenes from the book went from this:

“I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the Display Department.”
“With a torch.”
“The lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But you found the plans, didn’t you?”
“Oh yes, they were ‘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.'”

to this:

“I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“But you found the plans, didn’t you?”

The film is full of examples like this, where original, perfectly-timed, well-crafted comic prose has simply been neutered in order to fit in the allotted 110 minutes of running time, lines hacked and reworked and amended with no real purpose, other than to justify a script editor’s salary. It ends up being a distant echo of everything you loved about the book/tv/radio series, all your favourite memories watered down and sanitised. It doesn’t help that Mos Def and Martin Freeman as Ford and Arthur respectively are both pretty miscast. I can’t fault their performances as such, but their delivery of the remaining jokes just felt disjointed and clumsy.

The third worst poetry in the known galaxy.

It’s not all bad. I loved Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Zooey Deschanel makes a good Trillian. Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin is on top form and John Malkovich is nicely creepy as new character Humma Kavula. Stephen Fry is the voice of the guide itself and I’ve no complaints there. In fact, those sections of the film devoted to narration from the book are some of the better parts, staying (mostly) faithful to the original text (though key points are absent, most notably the entry on the importance of always knowing where your towel is; this is unforgivable as there are repeated references to towels in the film that make no sense contextually.)

Visually, the film has some impressive moments, in particular the grey and imposing Vogon city (and the Vogons themselves are excellent), and the trip Arthur Dent takes through Slartibartfast’s ‘factory floor’. That scene is followed by a tour of Earth Mark II, which again is fun to watch and has some nice comic touches (such as a lone workman painting Ayer’s Rock its trademark shade of red). I also quite liked the stop-motion ‘made-of-wool’ scene.

A little less action, a little more conversation.

Ultimately, this film lacks the intelligence and the wit that I’d expect of any version of the story, be it book, radio series, film or play. It’s enjoyable to watch and I did laugh, mostly thanks to the notables mentioned above, but it’s simply not as good as it could have been.