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Alive 10
Movie Review

                    The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy!

                      Do you know where your towel is?

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (HHGG),  as created in the mighty brain
of Douglas Adams, has a special place in my overall scheme of things. In one
of  those  "Do you remember where you were when Kennedy  was  shot?"  styled
moments, I even remember being on hand, accidentally, for the very first BBC
Radio 4 FM stereo broadcast,  back in 1979 or therabouts. HHGG was something
totally mindblowing from anything I had ever come across before,  it was the
equivalent  of  'Star Wars' for radio,  more than making up for the lack  of
visuals  with  ground breaking production,  fantastic humour levels,  and  a
slowly unfolding chinese puzzle of a plot.

Of  course I had to follow it up,  and when the BBC repeated it on the cheap
and  cheerful long wave version of Radio 4,  I listened to the whole series,
and the further episodes that they made as well.  A bit later on,  the books
started to appear, and a little while after that, a television series, which
did a pretty good job,  within the notoriously stingy BBC effects budget, of
visualising what I had been listening to and making up in my head before. Of
course,  some  people may even remember the nasty logic traps in the Infocom
adventure game which came along a bit later still.

Although I loved HHGG,  I managed to avoid totally imploding into a Trekker-
like geekdom. I *DID* get involved with the ZZ9 Plus Alpha HHGG appreciation
society in the mid-nineties,  at the behest of one Dave 'Pixie' Hodges. That
even got as far as dressing up in a towel robe and scratchy beard, and going
to  conventions,  for flip's sake!  New readers may want to refer to some of
the  Maggie  'teenage'  issue  numbers,  for  my  reports  on  these  little
misadventures! Latterly, HHGG faded off, as other interests grew.

Now,  many years later, and possibly for too long a period after HHGG ceased
to be fresh, a movie has been made.

Before  I get into that,  I'm going to digress with a little section on  how
I'd personally rate the different works of Douglas Adams.

Most people speak in terms of Douglas Adams,  the great writer.  Whilst this
is true to some extent,  I never really got into the Dirk Gently series, and
his  later  books  on the HHGG canon were definitely  going  off  the  boil.
Besides  which,  he  was a reluctant novelist,  and even more notorious  for
breaking deadlines than any demo coder!

Where his real genius lay in my opinion, was with the original radio series,
where  not  only  the  writing counted,  but the  fantastic  production  and
soundscape featured too. A book is a load of letters on a page when you come
down  to  it,  but the radio series made HHGG come properly alive,  and  was
really doing new and amazing things with the format.

The  BBC managed to successfully carry this over to their television  series
as well. So I'd rank the various forms of HHGG media thus;

1. The original Radio 4 series..
2. The BBC television series..
3. The earlier books..
4. The Infocom Adventure game..
5. The final book. (In last place by a long way!)

So  having done your little worship at the altar of Adams-ology,  can we get
back to the film review now?

  Cyclone politely informs some Alive contributors of the new deadline!

The HHGG movie has a long prehistory. I seem to remember that it has been an
active  project  since the time I was involved with ZZ9 at the  very  least.
Nothing happened for a long time,  and the tale goes something like, Douglas
Adams selling the movie rights,  nothing much happening for a long time, and
Douglas Adams struggles to get them back again. Eventually he does, but just
when  it  looks like things are really beginning to  happen,  Douglas  Adams
dies suddenly.

I'm  kind  of suspicious that with the death of Douglas Adams,  it  suddenly
became  easier for the movie to be made,  once the annoyingly  perfectionist
writer has been taken out of the equation?

It's  not just any Hollywood megacorp film company either.  We've got Disney
Corp's  Mickey  Mouse paw-prints on a preciously  fragile  comedic  national
treasure  like HHGG.  Surely nothing good can come of this falling into  the
hands of a bunch of all-American family values talking squirrel merchants!?

Let's  start  with the cast,  and just who's playing who?  In one sense,  it
would  have  been nice to get the original radio/Tele series cast,  but  the
fact that they are too English,  obscure,  old, and in one case (Peter Jones
as the guide) dead.  Here we have a mixed cast, with some well known but not
A-list names.

The principal players..

Arthur Dent, Martin Freeman, better known from the 'Office'.
Narrator/The Guide, Stephen Fry.
Ford Prefect, Mos Def.
Zaphon Beeblebrox, Sam Rockwell.
Trillian, Zooey Deschanel.
Marvin, voiced by Alan Rickman, not given that much to do.
Humma Kavula, John Malkovich
Slartibartfast, Bill Nighy,

So  onto  the film itself,  The first important question to ask is how  much
does  it  deviate  from the source material?  Even bearing in mind  that  no
version of HHGG made by Douglas Adams was ever the same as what came before,
the answer has to be "Quite a bit."

In spite of the principal characters making the final cut,  and the plot, up
to a point, sort of being faithful to the source, there is quite a lot which
has  been  chopped  around and taken out,  and in many  cases,  replaced  by
something  not  as  good as the source material.  Whatever  the  differences
between versions, you could always spot the hand of Douglas Adams in it. But
in the movie, this mojo is strangely absent. It's never a good sign when you
spot  the name of the deceased author in the title credits as an  'executive
producer'. Maybe he is dead for tax reasons after all?

It's  a  bit like caffeine free coffee,  or alcohol free beer,  we now  have
Hitchhikers Guide without Douglas Adams! What made the original so appealing
has been filtered, and washed, and strained through a fine mesh of hollywood
decision  making,  until  all  the essence that made it an  authentic  Adams
authored  product  has been removed.  What is left looks a bit  like  Hitch-
hikers, but it isn't!

Okay,  so it's not that bad really. If you forget about what came before, or
are  new  to all of this,  the movie makes a not unappealing  spectacle.  Of
course,  the  visual effects have been given a big kick,  so you finally get
things described by Douglas Adams as a throwaway radio joke properly  shown.
The  BBC series made do with a single Vogon Constructor ship,  but thanks to
the  wonders of CGI,  you finally get to see the whole fleet and  appreciate
how  vast  it  is.  The  destruction of the Earth to clear  the  way  for  a
hyperspace bypass has been done proper justice here.

The  other  thrilling 'big canvas' sequence,  has to be when Arthur Dent  is
taken  on a tour of the Magrathea planet-making factory floor,  where you do
see  everything life-size,  and of course when they visit the mark 2 version
of the Earth, which is in the final stages of being built. The iconic Hitch-
hikers Guide animation sequences do get in here, but to a lesser extent, and
in  a  strangely  simplified  style,  sort of like  an  animated  powerpoint

There  are  other  things  to like about it  too.  The  Vogons  were  nicely
depicted,  and  the digression to the Vogon home planet Vogsphere was almost
worth  the plot upheaval to get there.  These guys deserve their own  movie!

The character of Trillian, usually not that well developed, and something of
a cipher originally, has been much more strongly written and comes across as
someone  who  really knows where her towel is.  The 'real-world'  developing
romance between her and Arthur Dent is kind of neat taken in isolation,  but
tends  to  distort the structure of HHGG somewhat.  The character of  Zaphod
Beeblebrox  is  about  70 percent there.  The idea of  a  celebrity  airhead
laughably interacting with the big bad universe,  being useless with it, but
somehow  getting away with it,  is even more pertinent now than it was  back
when  Adams first invented the character.  I'd say he should have been a bit
better  played  as more cheerfully cynical as previously,  and a little  bit
less overtly flaky.

Stephen Fry does a pretty fair job in place of Peter Jones, as the Guide. It
would have been nice to have a little bit more of the guide,  but obviously,
some hotshot thought that the movie was not 'linear' enough, ah well.

Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent may have been a little bit young for the role,
I  tend to think of Arthur Dent as a certain kind of slightly repressed  and
old  fashioned  thirtysomething  englishman,  of a sort which  isn't  around
anymore.  Difficult  one  to  call really.  Mos Def as Ford Prefect  does  a
competent job,  but then again,  that role can be more flexibly interpreted.
Bill  Nighy as Slartibartfast does a great job in his limited  screen  time.
John Malkovich, is presented as an adversary to Zaphod Beeblebrox, but seems
to be totally in the wrong movie. The other star turns, such as Helen Mirren
as  Deep  Thought,   and  Alan  Rickman  voicing  Marvin,  phoned  in  their

And  now we're onto the really big and important question of the day.  Where
does the movie screw up?

The thing which gets most hardened fans screaming "Nooooh!" and walking  out
is  in  the cavalier treatment of the plot and dialogue.  The words  clumsy,
rushed, choppy, mangled, and incomplete, are all appropriate to describe the
handling of the plot structure and dialogue in the movie.  yes, it really is
that teeth-gratingly bad! There have been cuts and omissions from the source
material.  Fair enough,  as some bits might be past their best, or otherwise
send  the  running  time of the movie too long.  But the butchery  has  been
extensive,  and  not  only  chopping out complete sequences,  but  making  a
horrible botched mess of much of the remaining material.  Extended dialogue-
based  humour is cut into pieces,  punchlines appear without the lines which
came  before.  All  the  subtly weighted nuances of the  spoken  word,  that
Douglas  Adams was so good with,  have all been smacked around the head with
an  editorial ploughshare,  until they are rendered incoherent and  useless.

Now if this is appreciating the genius of Douglas Adams, I'd hate to see the
hatchet job!

A  'good'  example  of the dialogue malaise,  is the way  that  Marvin,  the
paranoid android, has been reduced to a minor role. His depressive but witty
interactions with the other characters have been totally lost, and he's been
reduced to a load of unfunny and non-specific moaning.

It doesn't stop there either.  We have a plot structure which is incomplete.
In  place of much of the missing material,  there is a pointless kidnap  and
rescue  the babe-in-peril sub-plot grafted on,  presumably to lend some more
conventional movie action to keep the more,  ahem, American audiences happy.
There  is  a half-developed subplot where our heroes get to meet  the  Humma
Kavula character,  and Zaphod loses some vital bodily parts,  but he somehow
loses  interest in getting these back by the end of the film?  (Perhaps this
is leaving the way open for a sequel, where Humma Kavula gets a bigger role,
but would we give a stuff about that?)

There are lots of stupid basic mistakes which wouldn't have happened if  the
people  responsible had really properly understood the source material.  For
example,  the  Restaurant  at the end of the Universe refers to the  end  of
time, not the end of space for grud's sake!

I  don't  think  there  ever was any intention to ruin  it.  There  isn't  a
fanciful smoke-filled room full of hollywood movers and shakers poring  over
the  radio scripts,  reading and soaking up the exquisitely witty exchanges,
then gleefully rewriting them deliberately to deaden the impact. The problem
seems  to  be  with  a team which probably either  hadn't  read  the  source
material  too  carefully,  or were tone deaf and unskilled when it  came  to
understanding  it.  Or  has the senior suit in charge decided there was  too
much standing around and talking, and that more "action" was needed, even if
it was of the inconsequential knockabout variety,  which didn't add anything
to the story.

Perhaps  it's  too  late for a decent Hitchhikers  Guide  movie?  The  ideal
situation  would  have been for it to be made by Handmade Films,  the  Monty
Python  movie people,  to keep the essentially english flavour intact,  with
the  best time to do it being around twenty-odd years ago.  There is such  a
thing  as  franchise  fatigue,  and  maybe we've  reached  that  point  with
the Hitchhikers Guide?

This  movie  will  be  assessed as "mostly  harmless"  eye-candy  by  people
previously  unfamiliar  with the cult,  but hardened fans will need a  drink
after  seeing  this,  and will seek to get one by sticking a finger  down  a
Vogons throat!

CiH, for Alive Mag,May '05.

Alive 10