Dir: Garth Jennings. US.2005. 108mins.
Douglas Adams fans don't need to panic and neither,probably, do producers Spyglass and Disney: the long-awaited movie version ofAdams' classic British sci-fi comedy - made with US money and a transatlanticcast but directed with a definite English accent by UK pop video whiz GarthJennings - preserves the eccentric spirit of the original radio/book/TV series,even as it smartly streamlines the story and updates the tone.
In the process, however, themovie, perhaps inevitably, reduces the effectiveness of some of Adams' clever,whimsical humour; and audience response to that compromise could ultimatelydetermine whether the big-screen Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxybecomes just a solid success or a planet-wide hit.
Distributor Buena Vistagives Hitchhiker its first openings, in the US, the UK and Australia,this weekend, allowing the film three weeks to prove itself before the somewhatsimilarly targeted Star Wars: Episode III gets its worldwide release.
Box office in the UK - wherename recognition and the cast will count for most and where the film hasalready earned some enthusiastic reviews (as well as the occasional fansitedrubbing) - should be impressive, but prospects in the US are much lesscertain. There, though Adams fans will undoubtedly turn out, the cast willexert less pull on the broad mainstream audience that Buena Vista is seekingwith its very wide release. And even if mainstream cinemagoers do show up, thenon-aficionados among them are quite likely to be bemused by a good deal of thecomedy.
In the rest of the world(most other territories get the film in June, July or August) grosses willdepend to some extent on local familiarity with earlier incarnations of thestory (the Hitchhiker books have been widely translated and have soldmore than 15m copies), though the sci-fi comedy sub-genre is one that sometimesworks particularly well outside the US.
Adams had been working on a Hitchhikerscreenplay for nearly 20 years when he died prematurely in 1998. KareyKirkpatrick (Chicken Run) shaped the finished script, which faithfullyretains the story's crucial elements.
There's Arthur Dent(Freeman, from British TV hit The Office), the unsuspecting Earthman whosuddenly finds his planet destroyed to make way for a hyperspace freeway; FordPrefect (hip-hopper-turned-actor Mos Def), who introduces Arthur to spacehitchhiking; Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell, from Confessions Of A DangerousMind), the two-headed President of the Galaxy on whose ship Arthur and Fordend up; and Trillian (Deschanel, last seen in Elf), Zaphod's humantravelling companion.
Plenty of other much-lovedelements also survive - the Guide itself, of course, with 'Don't Panic' on itscover and UK comedy icon Fry as its 'voice'; Marvin the Paranoid Android(voiced by Rickman); mega computer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren); andeven that unlucky whale (voiced by Simon Pegg, lead in Shaun Of The Dead)- but here they appear in a more structured plot that should be fairly coherenteven to Hitchhiker newcomers.
Fresh elements introducedfor the movie include a budding romance between Arthur and Trillian and HummaKavula, an amusing but not very necessary intergalactic missionary (played byMalkovich).
Directing his first feature,Jennings impresses with his ability to fit many of the fans' favourite bitsinto a narrative that never loses momentum. He shows a deft touch too inreplacing the occasionally twee tone of Adams' late-1970s radio version with amore contemporary feel (one that paradoxically shows the lasting influence ofclassic British comedy schools like Ealing, Python and Handmade).
The cast is another bigplus. Freeman adds a slightly laddish edge to Arthur's character and thanks tothe cult US success of The Office his presence should give the filmadded cachet on that side of the Atlantic. Deschanel makes the imposition ofthe love story entirely forgivable and Mos Def works surprisingly well as FordPrefect. Rockwell's Zaphod, a dim-witted space version of Bill Clinton, is oneof the film's main pleasures and the supporting cast includes a neat turn fromBill Nighy as planet designer Slartibartfast.
What's missing is themeandering charm that allowed comic moments to be effectively spun out inearlier versions. Perhaps to please purists, perhaps because Adams andKirkpatrick couldn't bear to leave them out, the film makes use of a number ofAdams' funniest lines and routines. But, because it can't afford to meander, itoften presents them in edited form.
The routines end up feeling likesouvenirs of the original material - which might work for hardcore and evenfairly casual fans who can recall the original bits, but will probably leavenewcomers feeling confused, or at least not particularly amused.
Other aspects of the movieshow off nice work by mostly British below the line talents (the film was shotat Elstree Studios near London). The design scheme finds just the right balanceof retro and modern for settings like Zaphod's ship and the planet factory ofMagrathea. The Guide itself is illustrated with animation that has a vaguely1950s feel and chief alien presence the Vogons are brought to life asanimatronic models designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The effects are bothCG and old school, further contributing to the retro feel (and helping to keepthe budget down to a reported $50m).
Bravely, but not entirelysuccessfully, the film uses only a snatch of the familiar radio theme music,instead opening and closing with the mock show tune, So Long & ThanksFor All The Fish (performed over the closing credits by former DivineComedy front man Neil Hannon).
Prod cos: Touchstone Pics, Spyglass Ent, Everyman Pics, Hammer& Tongs
US dist: Buena Vista
Int'l dist: Buena Vista Int'l
Exec prods: Douglas Adams, RobbieStamp, Derek Evans
Prods: Gary Barber, RogerBirnbaum, Nick Goldsmith, Jay Roach, Jonathan Glickman
Scr: Douglas Adams, KareyKirkpatrick, based on Adams' book
Cine: Igor Jadue-Lillo
Prod des: Joel Collins
Ed: Niven Howie
Costume des: Sammy Sheldon
Music: Joby Talbot
Main cast: Sam Rockwell, Mos Def,Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, John Malkovich