The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
April 29, 2005
Movie of the Day for Thursday, July 15, 2004
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On the Big Board
||A wonderful adaptation that remains true to the spirit of the series, if not neccesarily the text.
||Feels exactly like a higher budgeted, better casted re-make of the BBC mini-series of the early 80's, and that's great news from my perspective.
||I liked it, but I couldn't stop wondering what would have happened if Terry Gilliam had gotten his hands on it.
||Blatantly and subtly funny. Totally in keeping with the tone I was expecting.
I'm not sure I'll believe it until I see some concrete footage, but one of the most beloved titles in the sci-fi pantheon, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is finally coming to the big screen after both a comical and tragic number of false-starts. This is the last of the traditional media that this creation of the legendary Douglas Adams will come to, after originating as a BBC radio series in 1979 and then moving through television, video games and the format for which it's overwhelmingly known, the "trilogy in five parts" novel.
The exact details of the story have changed in each format with no one being entirely definitive and often, entirely disagreeing with one another. However, the basic jist of the story revolves around one Arthur Dent of London, who is (he thinks) the sole survivor of Earth moments before it is destroyed to make room for an intergalactic expressway. He's saved by his friend Ford Prefect (North Americans: think Honda Civic) who much to Arthur's surprise, is actually from the vicinity of the star Betelgeuse (not, as previously thought, from Surrey) and a writer for the titular guide, a sort of loosely researched traveler's handbook filled with dubiously accurate information and with the very useful reminder to "Don't Panic" written on its front. The rest of the first part of this story then covers Ford and Arthur's attempt to navigate about in the Universe and what role, if any, Arthur has in an scientific attempt to determine the answer to "Life, The Universe, and Everything" along with evading the evil Vogons and their Second Worst Poetry in the Universe.
Perhaps the most infamous case of Development Hell in history, the length of time it's taken to get this filmed can best be illustrated by the fact that Dan Aykroyd passed on this to do Ghostbusters. The problem, it seemed, was the difficulty in translating this material for a mass audience, as it's been declared too British, too geeky, too strange, too technically challenging, and too funny for sci-fi. Now that all seems a bit silly, as we have a pretty decent "X meets Y" that can resonate with any studio executive: Men In Black (in reverse) crossed with Brazil. About 15 years after it was first optioned, some progress was starting to be made on the film as there was a concrete example of something sort of similar to this working (both MiB movies were rather blatant pilferers of the material) and making a huge quantity of cash.
For a relatively long time, it was assumed that there would have to be some big names attached to the film in order to get the green light; the biggest of these names was Jim Carrey as Ford Prefect, which caused fans of the series to cry out "Zark, no!" (it's a geek thing). Unrestrained Jim Carrey is, just like unrestrained Robin Williams, potentially blisteringly funny in small doses but approaches toxicity with extended exposure. Probably the best thing to try and do with material as strange as this is to play it as straight as possible; the point is that the insane and ludicrous events of the book are happening to (relatively) ordinary people, which would be lost if everyone's a wacko eccentric.
Thankfully everyone's come to their senses. Arthur is being played a relative unknown, Martin Freeman, whose biggest exposure so far was as the long-suffering Tim on the BBC series The Office. Ford Prefect goes to rapper-turned-actor Mos Def, who seems like a very offbeat choice, but from The Italian Job, we know he has a good comic timing. The real casting coups are in the persons of Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian, respectively. The Zaphod character is directly up Rockwell's alley, a brash, seat-of-his-pants reprobate (who just happens to be President of the Galaxy), the kind of role he's done quite well in things like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men. Oh, and he has two heads, but I'm sure makeup can deal with that. Trillian's a bit of an underwritten character but Deschanel has the chops to flesh her out, considering that her sardonic nature and exasperated looks are perfect for a character who is constantly trying to get beyond the idiocy that surrounds her.
The person that remained attached to this the longest since that time is Austin Powers director Jay Roach, who is now in a producing role only. Even after the delay caused by the tragically early death of the author Douglas Adams, Roach was still eager to put the project into production, but delays and other commitments caused him to step aside when it finally moved into pre-production. The new helmer is Garth Jennings of the British duo Hammer & Tongs, a video and commercial team. A quick look at their repertoire shows they have a very good handle on the fantastic and the surreal, which bodes well for this project. Hopefully they'll have the skill to capture the humor in Adams's numerous asides, something that will be difficult in a film that's doubtless going to be breakneck paced.
The biggest question still remaining is how much of the books they plan to put in this film. As I mentioned, there are five in the series, and they could pretty easily make five films that would please fans of the books and its other incarnations immensely. However, to say that the first book has a thin ending is like saying that Cher has had a little plastic surgery; it just sort of stops. So at this point, you're left with tinkering with the source material, always a dicey prospect, or combining books. The TV miniseries had the luxury of being able to take it slow and be more episodic. In a movie, that's not something you get to do often, with the Lord of the Rings books being a notable and huge exception. Realistically, with a franchise these days, all you're going to get is three movies out of it before it goes stale. With that in mind, it'd be a lot easier to make three great movies out of this as opposed to maybe five okay ones and possibly not getting past the first one.
No matter what happens with the box office of this film, it's destined to be significant if they don't mess with it too much. It'll either be a blockbuster smash of 2005 or destined to be remembered forever as a cult classic, along the lines of Buckaroo Banzai. (Reagen Sulewski/BOP)
May 12, 2004
The movie's official site is live, including a blog that keeps fans updated on production status. The first entry includes a photo of cast and crew. To visit the blog directly, go to http://hitchhikers.movies.com/hitchblog/blog.htm. (Kim Hollis/BOP)