Hello. Let me introduce myself. I am a hard core Hitchhiker fan. I have been since the age of twelve. In college, I was lucky enough to interview Douglas Adams and my level of fandom reduced me to incoherency. Deep in my heart, I care about the Hitchhiker universe, about its singular vision, more than Middle-Earth, probably more than Sunnydale, maybe even possibly more than that galaxy far, far away, which I was pretending I was a part of before I could even read. So I was ready, if need be, to hate this film more than I hate my president, to label it betrayal and use it as an excuse to burn perfectly innocent inanimate effigies.
But this film is fucking wonderful. I'm sorry. It's so great. It's brilliant and epic and hilarious.
And everyone else in the theater clearly agreed with me. There was continuous roaring, and there was tumultuous applause. They can't all have read the book. I can only dream of the degree of joy the film must bring to those who don't already know four out of every five jokes.
This film has been in development at Disney for over twenty years. It was almost made by Terry Jones in the 80's, then almost made by Ivan Reitman, who decided to do Ghostbusters instead. Adams did several new drafts of the script for Jay Roach in the late 90's, but his untimely death from a heart attack pushed the project onto the back burner once more. Then it was offered to Spike Jonze, who didn't feel at all comfortable with an $80 million effects extravaganza, but instead recommended Garth Jennings.
This is Jennings' first feature. I can't think of a debut so impressive since Donnie Darko. His only qualifications were a handful of notable music videos for Pulp, Blur, and Beck. Plus, his actually being British.
(The nationalities of the film's characters seem a bit mixed-up at first: I had the most trouble getting used to Trillian as an American. Ford's vicinity of Betelgeuse is evidently Brooklyn, though thankfully not Joe Pesci's neighborhood, and Zaphod is Californian or Texan - though his slang in the book does make him come off that way. Across the pond, as it were, the Vogons, the Magratheans, the Guide itself, and Marvin are all British, so the galaxy at large retains its Python-in-Space feel.)
Jennings and Karey Kirkpatrick, the screenwriter credited below Adams, swear that all they did was cross-stitch Adams' different drafts into the funniest possible shooting script. That is, they're happy to admit that none of the new ideas are their own. I tend to trust that, only because the new bits fit so well into the world of the story. However, several of the actors below are known to be gifted improvisors, so we certainly can't say that every line belongs to Adams.
Arthur Dent == Martin Freeman. If you have never seen the mockumentary series The Office (please note that I am not referring to the recent NBC remake), it is amazing and this man is its anchor. He is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT as Arthur, and even if this film adaptation had taken several missteps it would still be pretty good due to him holding it all together. He's the befuddled straight man, yet it's only because no one acknowledges his caustic wit.
Ford Prefect == Mos Def. He can bust a funky rhyme, but can he pull off being The Brother from Another Planet? I had misgivings before seeing him in the role, but he's excellent - a deadpan reluctant mentor for Arthur who lapses into Hunter S. Thompson-style debauchery at the slightest excuse. Note his hilarious response to a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
Zaphod Beeblebrox == Sam Rockwell. In my mind, this man can do no wrong. He was outstanding in Galaxy Quest, Charlie's Angels and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He's chameleonic, and his comic timing is impeccable. His President of the Galaxy is smug and breezy, a lighthearted riff on Dubya - "I'm a busy guy, I don't have time to read!" His second head takes the place of his neck, and spastically emerges to growl the desires of his id, much like Dr. Strangelove's arm.
Trillian == Zooey Deschanel. She fits well into this role because you have no problem believing that she is a super nerd - that she would leave the planet given the slightest opportunity. She has an oddly deep voice and lamplike blue eyes that do not let up. I think we will be seeing much more of her after this.
Marvin == Warwick Davis (body) + Alan Rickman (voice). Rickman's sarcasm brings more to the role of Marvin than I could have dreamed. And even though I am an Ewok hata, I have to admit Davis is a gifted mime. He can set off a laugh just by tilting that giant plastic head. The combination makes Marvin one of the film's most memorable characters.
Slartibartfast == Bill Nighy
The Guide == Stephen Fry
Eddie the Computer == Thomas Lennon (of The State and Reno 911!)
Hologram of Magrathean == Simon Jones (the original BBC Arthur Dent)
Gag Halfrunt == Jason Schwartzman
Humma Kavula == John Malkovich
There are so many beautifully realized places and creatures I want to rant about, but after Adams' words have been so well interpreted, it seems silly to convert them back into words. I will just mention that it is fantastic - it takes me back to my childhood - to see all aliens done as massive animatronic puppets by Jim Henson's company. Not a CGI critter in the lot. And the colorful 2d animations that illustrate the Guide's digressions are lovely. They remind me of some recent commercial, but I can't recall for what - anyone?
The section below assumes that you are familiar with the basic story points. If you are not, you can become so simply by reading the many pieces above. This is for hardcore fans who are dying to know exactly what has changed. It is NOTHING BUT SPOILERS. If you decide to read it, you will most likely be depriving your future moviegoing self of a large number of laughs. But what kind of internet reviewer would I be, if I didn't ruin everything I could?
ACT ONE, IN WHICH OUR HEROES DITCH THIS MUDBALL
A sampling of Omitted Gags (which I missed):
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." The very first page, which mentions digital watches, small green pieces of paper, and a girl in a cafe in Rickmansworth (who, in Book Four, will become known to us as Fenchurch)...gone.
Not from the book, but: The trailer (which I assure you I did not scrutinize every frame of, repeatedly) opened with Arthur turning off his alarm clock. Under it was a copy of Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut - Vonnegut being an obvious influence on Adams - and you could also see Arthur's laminated BBC badge. Anyway, this two second shot was cut.
"It was 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'". When Prosser tells Arthur the plans for the destruction of his home have been on display, Arthur merely repeats, "On display?"
"A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." Although towels are most definitely in the film - Ford keeps his around his neck, ready to brandish it at any sign of danger - the Guide never explains why.
"Mostly harmless." The exchange revealing that Ford wrote the Guide entry on Earth, which Arthur greatly disapproves of.
"Infinity minus one." The ultimate improbability being not that Arthur and Ford were picked up, but their relationships to those who picked them up. Actually, this sort of thing just seems natural in a movie, and you have to admit it's a bit of a nerdy joke.
A sampling of New Gags (which I loved):
The section on dolphins has been moved right up front. It's the very first thing in the movie. As the opening credits roll, the dolphins sing a song - a classic Hollywood style big band cheery uptempo musical number - about how you are all going to die and they are getting the hell out.
Flashback of Arthur and Trillian's costume party meet-cute in Islington. He's dressed as Stanley. She's Darwin, and he's the only one who gets it. She likes him enough to invite him to Madagascar (which seems to be a reference to Adams' trip to the island, which inspired Last Chance to See), but he's reluctant to leave his job. That's when Zaphod shows up.
Flashback of the moment when Arthur and Ford met. Ford, who of course named himself after what he thought was Earth's dominant life form, tries to shake hands with a car and nearly gets run over.
The unfilmable pyschedelic madness that the Infinite Improbability Drive inflicts upon Arthur and Ford as soon as the Heart of Gold picks them up has been replaced by a single bit in which they are suddenly sofas. "Ford," Arthur says, rather ashamedly, "I think I'm a sofa." The Drive later transforms the whole crew of the Heart of Gold into adorable kindergarten style yarn puppets.
When Trillian sees Arthur on the ship's cameras, she rushes to put on some pants. Really, if you were just kickin' around a stolen spaceship, and the only other person aboard was your squeeze, why would you wear pants? Pants suck. A little while later, when she's catching up with Arthur, she brandishes a mini-lightsaber at him, only to reveal it's a bread knife that instantly creates toast. Dear Disney Store want one now plz kthx
ACT TWO, IN WHICH THE HEART OF GOLD BOUNCES RANDOMLY AROUND THE GALAXY NOT UNLIKE A GIANT PING-PONG BALL:
Zaphod, in this version, actually wants to discover the Ultimate Question (to receive even more fame and money than he's already entitled to as President of the Galaxy), and so it is Zaphod, not Slartibartfast, who shows Arthur the Deep Thought footage. (As for the hyperintelligent pandimensional beings aka white mice, Lunkwill/Fook, Loonquawl/Phouchg and Benjy/Franky have all been collapsed into just two characters spanning twelve and a half million years.) But Zaphod still needs coordinates to get to Magrathea, and to get them he must go to Viltvodle VI and confront Humma Kavula, his ex-opponent in the campaign.
Kavula agrees to give them the coordinates, but only if they deliver to him a certain hyperintelligent pandimensional gun, and he takes Zaphod's extra head as collateral (mounting it on a bobblehead doll for safekeeping). As the crew is leaving, Trillian is abducted by the Vogons (who are integrated throughout as The Bad Guys, but pitifully ineffective ones, as they cannot shoot straight, are afraid of towels, and must wait for the proper forms to be processed before they can give chase) and Arthur convinces the others to travel to Vogsphere to rescue her.
On the Vogsphere, where the massive constructor fleet simply slots into the ground to become a maze of foreboding skyscrapers, Arthur, Ford and Zaphod must cross a plain where they are slapped in the face by a machine every time they have an idea. Arthur steals Marvin's arm to pretend it's a Kill-O-Zap blaster (index and middle fingers pointed forward, ring and pinky curled under - what, that looks like a gun to you, doesn't it?) but no one is fooled. So this bit is a lot like the middle of the first Star Wars film, only instead of stealing some uniforms and blasting everyone, our heroes merely use Zaphod's star status to cut in line and then do some paperwork. (Arthur: "I'm British. I know how to queue.")
So Trillian is saved from devourance by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, but she's not very happy to see Zaphod (who can't even remember her name), because she's learned from the Vogons that he signed the authorization for the destruction of Earth, but she's not happy to see Arthur either (who is mad about her) because he didn't tell her about the destruction of Earth. He tries to explain that was because Zaphod threatened him, but she isn't hearing a word of it.
ACT THREE, IN WHICH ALL IS DISTURBINGLY RESOLVED SATISFACTORILY:
After the wonderfully intact sperm-whale-and-bowl-of-petunias bit, the crew lands on Magrathea, which is an icy wasteland. Arthur can't summon up the courage to hurl himself through a dimensional portal and so remains behind with Marvin while the others travel to whatever the name of the place is where Deep Thought sits. Deep Thought is busy watching cartoons and apathetically lets them have the weapon Humma was after: The point-of-view gun, which, when you blast someone with it, instantly shows them things from your perspective. Trillian shoots Zaphod several times.
Meanwhile, Slartibartfast finds Arthur and takes him to the factory floor, and then all the way down to the surface of the Earth Mark II. Past oceans being filled with hoses, past mushrooms being forcibly bloomed, all the way to... his non-demolished house. He goes inside to find the others waiting for him, feasting on the banquet provided by Benjy and Franky. When the mice are just about to saw open his cranium to extract the Ultimate Question from his quivering brain, he exclaims in frustration that the only question he ever cared about was "Is she the one?"
Arthur manages to squish the mice, but when he gets outside, he finds that they're surrounded by an army of Vogons led by the Vice-President. Marvin's enormous head takes a stray laser bolt, and he turns the POV gun on the Vogons, all of whom collapse in despair. Slartibartfast tells Arthur that the Earth Mark II is nearly ready for installation, but Arthur declines the offer to be part of it, and heads off to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe with Trillian on his arm.
It would be easy to say that this is the sellout ending, the predictable Hollywood Disney ending - but I can't deny that it felt good, that I always wanted Arthur and Trillian to have a fair shot at making it work. Is that somehow more artificial than the pesky malfunctioning teleporter whisking Arthur away to another regularly scheduled certain death cliffhanger? If there is a sequel (please Zarquon, make them do a sequel) and they do get arbitrarily separated, that can only be more affecting. I also respect Trillian more this way, since she doesn't remain completely passive about her crappy relationship situation until Book Three.
As much as I love the book, it doesn't end, it simply stops; the characters don't grow or change at all, they simply escape to get pissed and take the piss another day. The film could no more end that way than Fellowship could end without Boromir's death. The last thing we see is the Heart of Gold transforming into Adams' face, and there is no doubt in my mind this film preserves his ingenuity and spirit as warmly and well as any could.