In the late 70s one of my favourite authors, Douglas Adams, wrote a radio series entitled The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
This turned out to be so remarkably popular, that Adams actually spent the rest of his life re-writing it.
It became a book, then an LP, then a TV series, and even an early computer game.
Fig 1. Ford and Arthur's TV incarnations trapped in an airlock inside my living-room, apparently.
It was inevitable that Douglas Adams would eventually be contracted to write the story as a movie.
But the deal stalled, as so many movie-deals do, in this case not least because the moneymen and Adams could not agree on what sort of changes would turn a winning radio script into a winning movie.
The story goes that Adams did complete the screenplay before his sad and sudden death in 2001. How much of that draft is what I watched tonight, and how much has been changed by the studio, are the reasons why this very long-awaited movie will be so contentious amongst Hitchhiker fans.
Perhaps the most interesting twist in this tale is that Adams' many different versions of his story all flatly contradicted each other anyway. Oh sure, they all began the same way, but sooner or later each medium has diverged and told its own unique version of the story. After all, space is big. Really big, so there must be an infinite number of directions for our Hitchhikers to travel in, and only Adams' mind-boggling imagination to limit them.
With this in mind then, tonight I sat down in Auckland's Sky City Metro screen 1 (on a free ticket) expecting a familiar start, and hoping to see the story blast-off in a new and unexpected direction. After all, it was a movie. They would change everything anyway.
The film has a strong opening - a song-and-dance number "So Long And Thanks For All The Fish" entirely featuring dolphins. It was truly wonderful to feel that rare barmy sense of humour again that I love so much. No-one seems to produce "my" type of comedy any more, which is a mystery to me as The Goodies, Father Ted and Spaced were so popular.
The credits over, we kicked-off properly in the same familiar place where the story always begins - ordinary Englishman Arthur wakes up one ordinary Thursday morning to learn that his house is about to be demolished. He figures this out when he looks out the window and sees the advancing bulldozers.
In all the story's previous incarnations we are introduced to Arthur - and build-up an empathy with him - as he confronts the workmen's supervisor. He does this whilst simultaneously halting the bulldozers by lying in the mud in front of them. In his dressing-gown.
Arthur, understandably agitated, is told that the plans have been on display for nine months at his local planning office:
ARTHUR: I eventually had to go down to the cellar!
SUPERVISOR: That’s the display department.
ARTHUR: With a torch!
SUPERVISOR: The lights, had… probably gone.
ARTHUR: So had the stairs!
SUPERVISOR: Well you found the notice didn’t you?
ARTHUR: Yes. 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”. Ever thought of going into advertising?
This is a beautiful piece of finely-honed comedy, that Adams has not really rewritten down the years.
ARTHUR: I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.
SUPERVISOR: But you found the plans, didn't you?
They probably cut this for time, but it was a bad call. We needed to meet Arthur, we needed to get on his side, and, darn it, exchanges like these are surely one of the key reasons why people are seeing the film.
But no adaptation is going to exactly match everyone's wishes. The reason I highlight this nitpick here, is because there are many instances where the director, or editor, or whoever seems to be afraid of dialogue.
Unlike most of today's visually-stunning science-fiction movies, the original radio scripts were obviously 99% speech, however Adams' dialogue is his style. Surely style, more than anything else, is the reason for any creative product's popularity. The 1980s TV series was not afraid to transfer most of Adams' dialogue, and became arguably Hitchhiker's most popular incarnation.
Speaking of dialogue, some of the first half-hour is unintelligible, due to a mixture of poor-recording and mumbled delivery. Sloppy.
After Arthur's non-argument with the workmen however, the film follows the usual well-trodden plot for a while. There is an absolutely beautiful moment when the music from the original radio series kicks-in, and for 30 wonderful seconds it really is as good as the original. Then of course we reach the moment that will set hard-core fan against hard-core fan - they land on the wrong planet.
And all of a sudden we have no idea what is going to happen next.
This is WONDERFUL!
NEW Hitchhiker is such a rarity these days, that to see Arthur, Ford, Zaphod and Trillian in a completely new set of situations was just what I wanted. I know about the story's canon, but as I mentioned earlier, each version of Hitchhiker starts its own new one.
Yes I know the new plot doesn't really hold together, and yes I even agree that the story as a whole is quite a mess. There are bits of the original thrown back in here and there, and where this happens it tends to be disappointingly mishandled. The joy in this film is therefore really in all the new material.
I suspect that some reviewers may condemn the new material and extol the virtues of the old. I'm going to do things the other way around.
Here's some of the old stuff that they've messed-up on here:
The computer Deep Thought. So carelessly realised. The BBC did it much better on such a tiny TV budget in the 80s. In that version the late Valentine Dyall had performed such a terrifying voice, that they would have done much better to seek permission for re-using it here. Since Deep Thought is a computer, any limitation in sonic range would have been fine. Sorry Helen Mirren, you were poorly directed.
The original TV robot Marvin is in a crowd scene on the Vogon homeworld. It's wonderful to glimpse him again, and he fits in so well. Into that shot, and that shot, and that shot. Oh, and that one as well. He's a bit like the red double-decker bus in that Austin Powers movie, constantly coming past in the background. The problem here is that such screen-presence really built-up my hopes that he was going to say something. Even just one sentence. Or one word. Maybe even just a solitary syllable - a depressed "No." or something.
He got nothing. I felt really disappointed about this. Maybe he would appear in a tag scene after the end credits?
"No. Aw-ful, isn't it?"
Simplifying the story does not mean that you don't need to explain it anymore. How are Arthur and Ford saved from the vacuum of space again? How does the starship Heart Of Gold take them wherever they want to go next? What does the infinite improbability drive actually do? Why do they travel to each planet? And is there any actual hostility towards Earth? The previous versions never left me in any doubt. Never dumb-down Douglas Adams.
Now here are three of the new elements that do work well:
Zaphod. Is quite horrible until you recognise that he was clearly written as Johnny Depp's character from Pirates Of The Carribean.
"You're the worst space-pirate I've ever heard of."
"But you have heard of me."
He even mistakes a caravan for a spaceship. Inspired.
The film's visuals - utterly gorgeous. Just the sort of fresh air that Douglas Adams' amazing ideas deserve. The scene in which Slartibartfast takes Arthur on a journey in a workmen's cradle is everything that it can be, and more. To see them shooting at such incredible speeds through so much gigantic electronic machinery, with our point of view from an adjacent track, is just awesome. See this on the big screen while you still can.
Arthur's romance. An inevitable symptom of the Hollywood market, so consequently there's never any doubt of how this will end, but although Arthur deserves someone with a little more commitment (and Trillian has none), this ends just lovely.
Arthur's the last human guy alive. And this is the last girl. Now that's what I call very very improbable.
I think it was Nick Meyer, who helped to write and direct the first three evenly-numbered Star Trek movies (you remember - they're the ones you can), who once described the franchise's secret as "something old, something new." That certainly held true here. I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more though, if I hadn't spent the whole 2 hours concerned whether the director was going to treat the material right or not. My fault? No, I'd have let my guard down, if he'd given me reason to.
Adams used to think through his ideas to such mind-bogglingly logical extremes, and many of those ideas are still here, but ironically held-together by a film that has not been thought-through at all.
The unhoned comedy, unfocussed performances and worried editing, along with several copied visual concepts from the TV interpretation (Deep Thought, the book's retro computer-graphics) suggested an inexperienced film-maker without many original ideas of his own.
The graphics themselves on the other hand were absolutely prolific. My guess is that these people had done this before.
For all this, I really really enjoyed this movie. It was the first film in ages that I have not snacked during - I was way too engrossed!
Every so often a film unexpectedly moves me. I don't care admitting it to the world - I shed a tear during Toy Story 2. Jesse the cowgirl's song in the middle about how her owner threw her out when she got too old to play with toys was reeeeeally sad. Don't mock - Disney are masters at that sort of manipulation.
Hitchhiker's left me with a few hard-to-explain tears during the closing credits too. I think this was because, among other things, for me it was such a trip back to childhood. It's so rare that I get to enjoy something so beautifully unashamedly bonkers these days.
When I was a teenager I had a typewriter in my bedroom. I'd write whole reams of these crazy sketches, stories, comic-strips, books and so on. And sometimes I'd have The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy playing on my tape-recorder at the same time.
I really miss those days. It was so nice to pop back and visit.
8 out of 10. Patchy. You really could have made it to 9.75 you know.
Link: If you've done 6 impossible things this morning, then why not round it off by playing an updated version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy computer game here. Just don't run crying to me when you can't even get out of Arthur's bedroom at the start.
Requires Flash to play.