Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Brings The Weird And Also Plenty of Entertainment

In the first decade of the 21st century, there was a trend (one not exclusive to just this era of filmmaking) wherein a number of pieces of popular literature got adapted into American feature films that basically just took the title and core concept of their source material (if even that) and tried to create a film that could emulate the financial success of other popular films. The Golden Compass, for instance, became a Lord of the Rings knock-off, and The Lightning Thief got turned into a watered-down Harry Potter clone. A feature film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was released in the middle of this era and you'd think this adaptation of the famous Douglas Adams novel would be another example of Hollywood taking distinct source material and creating a forgettable feature film adaptation out of it.

Shockingly, that's not the case. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes to the screen with a distinct aesthetic to its name, one that makes it stand-out among mid-2000's sci-fi fare and apparently makes it relatively faithful to the comedic sensibilities of its source material (which I have not read, for the record). All of the wacky cosmic mayhem begins with Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), an Earth-dwelling human whose house is being demolished. His friend Ford (Mos Def) informs him that that is the least of his worries. Earth is also being destroyed by bureaucratic aliens known as Vogans. In order to evade these creatures and Earth's demise, they hitch a ride with the Emperor of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a lady Arthur hit it off with a party once.

This group of quirky individuals are now traveling across the galaxy in an adventure that, as penned by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick, thankfully doesn't skimp on the strange. American science-fiction in the 2000s had a tendency to get bogged down in self-seriousness and never have actual fun with whatever universe it inhabited and this Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie feels like a poke in the eye to that sort of approach. Here, story comes second to exploring the vast galaxy of alien creatures and planets the movie has up its sleeve, and for the most part, such a storytelling approach works, especially since much of the aliens and planets are realized through wonderfully-realized practical special effects.

Just having characters waltz around alien planets allows for plenty of opportunities for the viewer to be impressed by the visual effects work, detailed production design and creative costume work that all help to make sure the vision of outer space in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly different creation compared to Star Wars or Star Trek. Another benefit from putting a traditional story on the back-burner is that it allows for the other key element of the proceedings, dark comedy, to also come to the forefront. Much of the film's humor derives from recurring narration from Stephen Fry as the titular book's narrator that manages to frequently provide commentary on Earth life through the lens of science-fiction means.

Another source for the darkly comic humor of the movie is the character of Marvin the Paranoid Android, played on-set by Warwick Davis and voiced by Alan Rickman. Marvin gets all the best lines of dialogue and Rickman delivers them with all the droll wit that the character requires, resulting in a delightfully morose mechanical man that makes Eeyore look like Paddington. Of course, like most movies fixated on exclusively providing gag-after-gag, there are a fair share of jokes in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that don't hit their intended mark while another writing-based shortcoming is found in how the few instances of actual character arc pay-off's (an odd sight in the middle of such a lunacy-driven story) fall short of their intended impact.

This is most notably seen in the romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian, which goes through all the expected beats without much creative flourish, which really stands out in a movie that's frequently brimming with imagination under the solid direction of future Sing director Garth Jennings. All of that imagination makes the movie an enjoyable, though certainly flawed, watch. I'd imagine people who aren't fans of science-fiction weirdness will be understandably bamboozled by the whole affair but if you're like me and crave distinct sci-fi films that revel in the absurd, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a mighty fine ride.

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