This was to have been my considered, thoughtful and detailed review of the new movie of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Easy”, thought I – I’ve been a fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy since its original 1978 broadcast on steam radio, followed it through its incarnations as an increasingly misnamed trilogy of books, a stage play, the BBC TV series, (with the charming production values of its cardboard and tin foil sets) and, finally, into my own personal involvement as the CTO of Douglas’ company, where I spent the latter half of the nineties and the first couple of years of the millennium immersed in the philosophy, humour, science, ideas and company of Douglas Adams and his works.
Easy then to figure that all of that should thoroughly qualify me to write about this, the decades-longed-for movie. How wrong I was. I’m sitting here, several days post-Premiere. I’ve almost recovered from the subsequent evening of Pan-Galactic Gargleblasters and am at something of a loss about what to write. In fact, I’ve now come to the conclusion that prior experience thoroughly disqualifies me from actually reviewing it. So here it isn’t.
Here’s what though: I’m suffering from an surfeit, neither of lampreys nor Douglas Adams, but of dear old Einstein, thusly: If a spacecraft were to accelerate close enough to the speed of light for relativistic effects to kick in, then time would seem to flow at a normal rate for its occupants while, to them, the world passed by at an ever-faster rate, still appearing familiar but becoming harder to assimilate as the velocity increased. And that’s exactly it: the relativistic effect of seeing the Hitchhiker’s Guide compressed, of necessity, from its usual episodic ramble into the contained and hermetic confines of a sub-two-hour movie. And this is something that I and other ‘fans’ of the HHGG should consider – the baggage of idea, pace and structure that we’re used to, and which simply can’t transfer directly to this medium. We shouldn’t expect a direct and slavish copy of one into another, “Turning the pages of the book and filming each in turn”, as Stephen Fry put it in his introduction. The irony of that is that Douglas himself was a past master of shuffling the premises, structure and content of his material to suit each new medium: the book is not the radio show is not the TV series and neither is nor should be the movie.
I’d gone into the movie not only happy with that opportunity-making necessity but looking forward to it. I came out of it in a deeply uncharacteristic state of quietude, something that persisted for at least the first round of cocktails. It took me that long for whatever part of the hindbrain deals with this sort of thing to finish processing, go, “Ding!” loudly and to feed the realisation that yes, I’d very much enjoyed the whole thing, to my forebrain, which promptly woke up and celebrated by ordering another Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster. After that, the partying came entirely naturally. It was also at that point of internal cult-ure shock that I realised just how impossible it is for me to say something useful without doing everything by comparison, from expectation borne of past experience, rather than of dealing with the movie as an entity in its own right. So this then is something of a non-review of the movie, dealing as it does with how I got from there to here, the “there” being the trepidation of anticipation, and the “here” the dawning realisation of enjoyment.
So I have no problem with new plot elements, with new characters or new dialogue, all of which are apparent in the film. I do have something of a wossname – a cultural dissonance – from my own baggage, of the foreshortening of much dialogue to suit the time constraints and pacing of the film. I have moments of “huh?” with those occasions in the movie where original witty dialogue and character interplay have been replaced or obscured in the name of nothing in particular. And I do regret the ironyectomy that the movie seems to have undergone, thereby misplacing a deal of the underlying by-play between the characters, set against a fundamentally ironic view of the behaviour of the universe and its life-forms. I found that akin to a small neutron-bombing of the plot: removing living matter while leaving the walls still standing. But there I’m right back in the land of comparison and expectation.
Lurching now from Physics 101 to a primer in Media Economics, it’s bleedin’ obvious that, no matter how artistically altruistic Disney might be feeling, they weren’t about to bankroll a movie to the tune of multiple tens of millions of Pobble Beads if it was ‘only’ going to play to the ‘me’s of this world and others in the “committed” fan base. And I’m using the term “committed” advisedly, here – there are those such out there who have reviewed the movie, and who seem to have taken the changes to heart and soul as a personal affront to their raison d’être. This economic imperative is something that Douglas himself was well aware of: he’d wryly describe the history of HHGG as, “A minor cult in Europe and a minor, minor cult in the USA. The difference however is several zeroes on my bank balance – something fairly minor in the US can be larger than something rather large in Europe”. And that, writ larger yet, is where we are with the movie – the need to carry along those fans but also to reach out to new audiences who, at best, may have heard of the name, who almost certainly and unknowingly use phrases from the HHGG in everyday conversation, but who have had no prior engagement with the story.
And if all of that sounds like damning with faint praise or even praising with considerable damns, then it’s time to put down my hobbyhorse, step away from my baggage, and see what’s really there. And that’s a visually sumptuous and humorous movie, with near non-stop action, much humour and genuinely funny scenes and dialogue. It’s neither predictable (for the most part) nor patronising of either the existing fan or the wider audience. On several occasions I had a significant lump in my throat. And it wasn’t from ODing on the complimentary Pringles. At the post-show party, and in that brief gap after I stopped feeling perplexed and before mere drunkenness kicked in, I realised that I’d actually had a damn good time. More notably, neither I nor any of the other Hitcherati present were seen to be crying into their Ole’ Janx spirit. In a deeply unscientific straw poll of assorted glitterati and blitherati present at the party, I sought out those who’d had little to no prior experience of the HHGG, and slurred my request for their ‘umble opinions. And they were, near to a being, highly positive. I’ll go along with that.
In the movie itself (and trying to avoid any spoilers or gratuitous revelation) Zooey Deschanel makes a highly credible Trillian; Martin Freeman as Arthur does, while notably and intentionally arseier than Simon Jones, manage to convey the essential confusion, perplexity and deep desire for tea of any Englishman abroad. Sam Rockwell is happily frenetic as Zaphod, and the trick used for the second head is very much more effective than any other movie attempt to actually portray two heads (which is as much of a spoiler as I’m giving). Mos Def’s Ford Prefect, after a semi-detached start, appears to get more into the whole thing as the movie goes along and the Warwick Davis/Alan Rickman combination delivers a suitably morose Marvin: You want a depressed robot? You got a depressed robot, but one of this generation. Bill Nighy makes a really excellent Slartibartfast and his presence, combined with the stunning visuals of the Magrathean factory floor and the wonderfully preposterous means of transport used, make that whole scene a complete movie-stealer, together with the Henson-created and Gillray-inspired Vogons. Overlying the whole thing are the mellifluous tones of Stephen Fry as The Book – a near-impossible segue from Peter Jones, but one carried off with panache and poise.
But this, as I’ve said, isn’t a review – more my initial musings about my own feelings. which isn’t the same thing. It opens in theatres across the land (any land) on 29 April, so go see it, relax and enjoy the experience. I will. But please, check your baggage at the cloakroom on the way in.