Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:36 pm 
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A friendly nod, and a warning

2 May 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the long-delayed evocation of a late-Seventies English radio program created by Douglas Adams that earlier led to a TV series, books and many other spin-offs. As reincarnated here, it's warm and enjoyable stuff -- relaxed, speculative, anti-bureaucratic, anti-establishment, and anti-religion. But above all two questions remain: does this really mean anything if you don’t' know the Hitchhiker's Guide already? And, if you do, will you ultimately find it satisfying? And I can't give you the answer.

The people in it are good. Zooey Duchanel is quietly appealing, Mos Def full of humor and smart energy. Alan Rickman is priceless if a bit one-note as a depressed and grumpy robot. Sam Rockwell charms and astonishes as a popinjay President of the Galaxy -- a shallow Texas charmer with Bushian intonations who's got two flip-flop alternating heads because "you can't be president with a whole brain," and says "I'm president of the galaxy; I don't get a lot of time for reading." Bill Nihy is perfect as the man at the end of the world who's one of the re-designers of planet earth. John Malkovich manages to seem different, yet unmistakably himself. He has the most extraordinary moment, when he jumps up onto a table.

Everything comes apart in the movie Guide, then gets put together again. There's an implication that a working universe isn't so much a matter of divine intervention as of good old fashioned English cooperation. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman of "The Office") the Brit everyman whose misadventure begins the story, is saved by his alien pal Ford Prefect (Def) just at the last minute as planet earth's about to be demolished. That's when Prefect provides him with a towel and shows him how to hitch intergalactic rides. We occasionally get peeks at the guide book, which allows the filmmakers to indulge their gift for digital graphic design.

As Dent and Prefect wander about through space, a complicated, meandering plot unfolds including, among other things, a search for the secret of all things,a porcine race of bureaucrats called the Vogons (nasty creatures who like to recite bad poetry), and two little inquiring girls who turn into mice.

The excellent cast helps keep technical tricks from taking over, but the Hitchhiker's Guide movie is richer in special effects and sci-fi adventures than Russell's I Heart Huckabees. It's more exciting and better-looking too; unfortunately it's also got some of those numbing noises that pepper children's animations nowadays and can occasionally make non-cineplex denizens like me start to nod off.

If like myself you don't know the books or the TV or radio series, you can't say if long-time devotees will see this movie as a travesty or a delight. At least one I've consulted not only says it's a travesty; she goes on a nearly two-thousand-word rant about it. Mind you, this movie is clever, independent, and good natured, not an altogether common mix. It's not, however, a movie I'll want to go back to. It has moments of fun or surprise, mostly thanks to the good cast. But it hasn't got the sustained and acid wit you find in any segment of Monty Python. And it's a pretty sure bet Disney has watered down the author's original combination of passionate science, non-conformism, and intellectual inquiry. They've also added a simplistic narrative arc the original author of these meandering intellectual explorations wouldn't have countenanced, which drives the aforementioned devotee nearly hysterical. (She admits the cast is terrific, and finds that particularly frustrating.) This much is quite evident to an outsider: there's nothing like the justice done to the Douglas Adams books by Garth & Co. here that Peter Jackson did for the Rings Trilogy. 7/10

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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