I can’t remember the exact moment that Garth Jenning’s adaptation of Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide won me over, but if I had to bet money, I’d have to put it on the Vogon desk lady’s response, upon seeing the disconsolate trio of space adventurers burst in the door, with Marvin’s arm held akimbo:
“Who, the Director of Robot Arm Repair? Next building, out the door to your left.”
It’s either that, or the beautifully constructed sequence on Magrathea’s ‘factory floor,’ as Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman race past all sorts of planets in various stages of completion – including one in the shape of the late Douglas Adam’s own face, which is only one of the many tributes the film pays to its’ progenitor, throughout.
Directed by music video duo Hammer and Tongs (of whom Jennings is one part of the binary compound), this film, like every previous incarnation in relation to the ones that came before it, lets fly the notion of hewwing along the lines set by Adams’ text, or the radio show, or even the TV series – and, in doing so, it manages to maintain the only real constant between any two versions of the story, the “spirit of the work,” that innocuous blend of semi-existential philosophy, science fiction on the broad and narrow scale, and a comic sensibility that’s of the distinctly British madcap school.
Adams, while the film was still in development hell during the eighties and early nineties (where, at the time, it was in the hands of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who’d just came off of Max Headroom – how different their careers would’ve been if they’d managed to finish it, instead of going on to that one movie. With the plumber.) had said that a lot of the difficulty of trying to translate something like Hitchhiker’s into a filmic medium was due to its’ structure, in that it is, essentially, “a twenty-five minute beginning, and a seventy-five minute ending with no real middle.”* Luckily, this film – from his own screenplay – manages to work its way around that problem and emerge unscathed, thanks to a wealth of new material that is integrated nearly seamlessly throughout – there’s a small twice-mentioned subplot involving the character Trillian’s newly invented half-alien origin that never really has any impact; of note particularly is John Malcovich’s unnervingly spider-legged apocolyptic cult leader Humma Kuvula, who sets the gang off in the right direction toward Magrathea, as well as a section of the film that takes place on the Planet Vogsphere – from which the heading quote came from – a mass of setting and rising grey office blocks, and unending queue lines. It’s a completely diversionary segment, but – this is Hitchhiker’s, remember, and that’s not unheard of.
It’s also a clear reminder of why Mos Def needs to act far more often – and especially in comedies, which he has an unmistakable flair for. He brings to the role of Ford an eccentric, laughing gangliness that’s just so much fun to watch, at times bursting through a door, shrieking and with his towel at the ready, and at still others urging Arthur to trust Sam Rockwell’s hunches, because “his hunches are good!”
Oh, and – “he’s closed the gate! We’ll have to go around the other way!”
One of the things that does stick out, as the film nears its conclusion, is that we really have no idea what it is that Magrathea – the “planet-building-planet” – does. The first mention we get of this is when Bill Nighy turns to Freeman and remarks, “you knew we built planets, didn’t you?” And I think this is because they decided to replace Zaphod’s original goal of finding the planet, itself with trying to obtain the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” – for the same purpose – which is conveniently located on Magreathea. It’s a minor, but odd, confusion – which the film shakes off soon enough.
There also seem to be a few ‘comic beats’ missing, here and there – mostly from what it seems were scenes that were either rewritten, but not to an extent that the film seems comfortable with, or cut down from their original running time. These occur mostly within the early moments of the film – which means, unfortunately, that the classic “beware of the leopard” exchange – and indeed most of the scene with Prosser’s character – is nowhere to be seen, among a few others.
As the film comes to a close, the Heart of Gold screeches to a stop, and changes direction, tripping the Infinite Improbable. And, the last thing we see, in the flurry of kaleidoscopic images that goes by, is a familiar old face, distinctly British, and smiling ear to ear. And that’s the scene that got me, now that I think about it.