Running Time: 110 minutes
US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG
In 1978, Douglas Adams penned the script for British radio an eccentric SF comedy entitled 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (or H2G2), and its success led to a run of five best-selling books (the first appearing in 1979), a BBC television series (1981), a computer game (1998), and now, over a quarter of a century after its first radio outing, a big-screen feature film. The cultish following that this loose-knit franchise has attracted over the years is both a blessing and a curse for the film, which must at once satisfy the pedantic adulation of Adams' fanbase, while seeming new enough to distinguish itself from previous H2G2 outings.
Garth Jennings' film manages more or less to succeed on both counts. Everyone's favourite characters, much of the surreal narration (delivered with perfect dryness by Stephen Fry), and the original's distinctive theme music, are all present and accounted for – and in an age where CGI has become the slick new medium for special visual effects, an inordinate amount of physical modelling and creature puppetry have been used to give the film a refreshingly organic retro look, as though the crew from the original TV series had been lured back to their old tools by a much bigger budget. Even the diary entries shun updated internet-like interfaces for a simpler, utilitarian style of animation whose old-school chic, more reminiscent of the sixties than the noughties, brings a cool allure all of its own. The new 'Star Wars' trilogy may showcase the very best that technology can achieve in cinema today but H2G2 prefers a cheaper-looking (if not cheapercosting) 'Doctor Who'-like ambience, both because it matches Adams' vision of a universe every bit as shabby and makeshift as life on our own planet, and also because it means that the film comes with a nostalgia factor already built in.
At the same time, there is some new material in the film, as there has been in each one of the previous incarnations of H2G2 although purists can rest assured that many of these changes were approved by Adams, who had completed the script's second draft before he died in 2001 and Karey 'Chicken Run' Kirkpatrick took over the screenwriting. Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is black, and decidedly odder than the original; Zaphod Beeblebrox now conceals his second head beneath the first, and is played with hyperkinetic gusto by Sam Rockwell as a President of the Universe whose patent idiocy recalls one or two Presidents much closer to home; Marvin the eeyore-like Android (voiced by Alan Rickman) has a cute appearance comically incongruous with his deeply depressive nature; and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), the well-nigh disposable token female of the original radio show, has been elevated up to a genuine love-interest for dressing-gowned hero Arthur Dent (Martin 'The Office' Freeman capably taking over from Simon Jones although Jones turns up briefly as a 'ghostly image'). These changes are not huge in themselves, but as the coda that plays over the closing credits reminds us, even the smallest things can have the most unpredictable of consequences and although the scenes involving mysterious sneeze guru and failed Presidential contender Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), an entirely new character, seem to have little point here, there is no doubt that his rôle is destined to become more pronounced in the inevitable sequels (note the many verbal references to a certain 'Restaurant at the End of the Universe' towards the film's close).
H2G2 is not, despite its plot, exactly earth-shattering, and at times it feels somewhat rushed and breezily superficial, with no-one ever really seeming more than two-dimensional (except perhaps for Bill Nighy's scene-stealing turn as the melancholic planet-builder Slartibartfast) but it has enough of Adams' cosmological surrealism to keep old fans happy, and to win a few new ones.
It's Got: An opening song-and-dance extravaganza performed by retreating dolphins; the complete destruction of Earth within the first ten minutes; the mindlessly bureaucratic Vogons beautifully rendered by Henson workshop puppetry; underground aliens that give a good slapping to anyone who has an idea; Bill Nighy at his best as Slartibartfast; the entire crew of the Heart of Gold reduced to knitted wool simulacra by the Improbability Drive; Bill Bailey voicing a whale having its first (and last) encounter with the full force of gravity; and, of course, long queues.
It Needs: A little more depth to all its breathlessly superficial business.
Hardly an earth-shattering solution to life, the universe and everything, but still gratifyingly eccentric.