This review is based on a substantially complete version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy shown to a small group of journalists in London on 31st March 2005, to which I was invited by Buena Vista International and Digital Outlook. The generosity of these companies in paying for my travel to this screening is gratefully acknowledged. The opinions expressed here are the personal critical opinions of myself, author and journalist MJ Simpson. This review is based on a single viewing of the film; if any factual details have been misremembered, I am happy to amend those portions of the text.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is bad. Really bad. You just won't believe how vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad it is. I mean, you might think that The Phantom Menace was a hopelessly misguided attempt to reinvent a much-loved franchise by people who, though well-intentioned, completely failed to understand what made the original popular - but that's just peanuts to the Hitchhiker's movie. Listen.
And so on...
It’s bad on a big scale because enormous swathes of the story have been dispensed with - most of the Guide entries, whole scenes - or changed beyond all recognition. And it is bad on a small scale because many, many wonderful lines have been cut or in some cases actually rewritten to make them less funny. Whatever your favourite line from Hitchhiker’s, there’s a good chance that it won’t be in the film. Even if it’s really well-known, widely-quoted, much-loved, very funny - it will probably be absent from the movie. Or if it is there, it might have been changed.
Douglas Adams was a dialogue writer. That was his skill - writing great dialogue. And when he had written it, he would rewrite it again and again and again, changing a word here or there because he knew that good comedy writing is like poetry. It has a meter to it and when you get the right words in the right order it just sounds right and nothing else will do. Douglas’ dialogue was perfect. However, the makers of this film, despite all their talk of being faithful to Douglas’ intentions and ideals, have seen fit to piss about with his carefully crafted, wonderfully quotable lines.
To put it bluntly, they have cut most of the jokes out. I’m not being metaphorical here, they really have, in a very literal sense, removed the jokes from the story. There are scenes where all we’re left with is the set-up dialogue, there are jokes where we get the feed-line but not the punchline. It’s astounding. Occasionally, the filmmakers have actually bothered replacing the jokes but they have replaced them with really, really pisspoor, unfunny jokes; they have replaced them with stupid playground humour and pointless slapstick.
As well as being staggeringly unfunny - and Hitchhiker’s Guide really is one of the least funny comedy films ever made - the film also suffers by having an entirely nonsensical plot. It is driven by convenience and unexplained happenings. Characters just happen to be where they need to be and have what they need to have, even if it makes no sense for them to be there or to have that. Maybe it did make sense at one stage, but the film looks like it has had some heavy re-editing from the version seen in early previews and test screenings.
With a plot that makes no sense, and most of the explanatory Guide entries either missing or so heavily cut that they might as well be missing, I fail to see how anyone who wasn’t already completely familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide could possibly follow what is going on. And those of us familiar with the story will just be incensed at the way that so much of it has been thrown out and replaced with unfunny, pointless crap.
This just doesn’t feel like Hitchhiker’s Guide. There’s no sense of a big crazy universe packed with weird lifeforms that somehow reflects our own world. Hitchhiker’s Guide has always been a Swift-ian satire but the makers of the movie have decided to ditch all that and replace it with pointless surrealism and crude physical comedy.
It doesn’t help that Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent as an annoying little prat, that Zaphod has been changed entirely in appearance, character and motivation so that all that is left is his name, and that Ford never gives the impression that he wants to go to a party. Of the Heart of Gold crew, only Zooey Deschanel’s Trillian is at all believable and sympathetic. Bill Nighy is excellent, easily the best thing in the film, but Marvin might as well not be there as almost all of his lines have been deleted or altered.
Stephen Fry sounds like Stephen Fry, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz sounds like Richard Griffiths, and Deep Thought sounds like Helen Mirren really couldn’t be bothered at all. As for John Malkovich, if he wasn’t the movie’s token star value his scenes would probably have been ditched altogether as they are completely pointless. They set up a subplot which is not only never resolved but never even touched on.
Some of the new ideas, such as Malkovich’s character, were created by Douglas Adams himself but that doesn’t make them good ideas. And perhaps some of the rewriting was done by Adams too, but that’s no excuse. In any case I’m quite sure that he didn’t very slightly rewrite his dialogue so that it neither flows properly nor generates any laughs. The movie is packed with little things that will only make sense to fans of the story, but they’re not in-jokes because they’re not jokes. Just mentioning something that is meaningless without having read the book does not make it a funny thing, and only serves to confuse those poor sods who have the misfortune to encounter Hitchhiker’s Guide for the first time in this form.
There are quite a few nods to Douglas Adams himself and although these go some way to making up for the almost complete absence of his name from the publicity, surely a better way of paying tribute to this much-loved, much-missed author would be to not fuck about with the sublimely witty dialogue that he sweated blood to create.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is an abomination. Whereas the radio show, TV show, books and computer game are all recognisably variations on a theme, this is something new and almost entirely unrelated. It’s not even a good film if viewed as an original work: the characters are unsympathetic, the cast exhibit no chemistry, the direction is pedestrian, the pace plodding, the special effects overpowering (lots and lots of special effects, none of them funny mind you) and above all the script is amazingly, mindbogglingly awful. Oh, and they have taken most of the jokes out.
This is a terrible, terrible film and it makes me want to weep.
Short film review (no spoilers)