Before we do this, I'm going to have to ask some of you to leave the room.
If you're a hardcore fan of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy mythology who will only judge the quality of the film in terms of its fidelity to Douglas Adams' novel, then don't bother seeing it. Take your $9.50 and spend it elsewhere. If you're looking for a faithful rendering of the book, you're looking in the wrong place and you won't enjoy the film. Chances are, you wouldn't enjoy it anyway, simply because of the natural discrepancies inherent to any film adaptation. I'm not judging. To each his own. I'm just trying to save you some heartache and financial strain, because this adaptation is nearly a complete re-write of the book I remember reading in high school
But don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to dissuade everyone who's ever picked up the book from seeing it. Chances are, in fact, that most people - even those versed in the lore - are going to enjoy this charming, whimsical comic fantasy. (Oh, and if you haven't read the book yet, you definitely owe it to yourself.)
After a bit regarding dolphins and their premonition about the world's fate, we're introduced to Arthur Dent, a hard-luck British everyman played by the ultimate British everyman, Martin Freeman (Tim from BBC's The Office.) Arthur wakes up to discover that his house is about to be demolished to make way for a new expressway. But while he's laying in front of a bulldozer, his friend Ford Prefect (played by rapper and actor Mos Def) runs to the property with some urgent news: the Earth is about to be destroyed so the Vogons, an unimaginative and bureaucratic alien race, can build their intergalactic expressway.
Soon thereafter, the Earth is no more and Arthur and Ford (who also reveals that he himself is an alien) are hitching a ride in a Vogon ship. It is in the bowels of this ship that Ford introduces Arthur to the concept of intergalactic hitchhiking, along with the ultimate, animated manual on life, the universe and everything, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A few minutes of screen time later, and they find themselves on the spaceship hijacked by Ford's cousin, the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell,) his latest girlfriend, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel,) and a clinically depressed robot, Marvin (Warwick Davis of Willow fame in the suit; Alan Rickman does his voice.)
So far, we're mostly on target with the book. But it's also right about here that the story diverts itself from its source. Enter John Malkovich as Humma Kavula, Zaphod's defeated foe in the recent elections. By odd coincidence, the team finds themselves on his home planet, where he sends them on a mission, touching off a series of events that gets them to the same goal as Adams' original book - the discovery of the identities of those looking for "The Ultimate Question" and the true purpose of Earth - but in a very different way, one that emphasizes the budding romance between Arthur and Trillian, and one that often doesn't really make a lot of sense.
But if all the veering off the novel's already beaten path is forgivable, it's because for the large part, the book retains Adams' witty, clever, light sense of humor, the kind that revels in absurdity in the face of certain doom. And this follows, of course, because Adams has written several different drafts of this script, dating back to 1982, when Ivan Reitman was among the first to option it. The additional screenwriting work credited to Karey Kirkpatrick is mostly just spit shine and polish (and maybe some updating of references here and there.)
Garth Jennings, perhaps wisely realizing that the story leaves more than a few loose threads completely untied, tries to keep the pace lively, throwing in striking visuals at every turn - some CGI, some not - and playing each joke - like the gun that causes its targets to see the shooter's point-of-view or the spatula-looking tentacles that attack people who have ideas - for maximum comedic effect, even if some of the jokes are more clever than uproarious.
Jennings is helped by having a stellar cast. Freeman's natural charm is present, and his knack for reaction takes obviously comes in handy. Deschanel takes her same jaded yet open-minded character from Elf and turns her awkward charm up a notch. Def, whose casting set of a firestorm of internet message board controversy, turns out to be an inspired choice as a very laid-back Ford, one who truly lives his life by the message printed on the back of the Guide ("Don't Panic.") Bill Nighy is pleasant, too, as the insecure Slartibartfast. Only Rockwell grates - his over-the-top shtick calls to mind a more gauche Robin Williams.
But the voice acting steals the show here. In addition to Rickman's Marvin - can a voice-actor be accused of chewing the scenery? - there's Helen Mirren as Deep Thought, Stephen Fry as the Guide itself (and the de facto narrator of the film,) and, in perhaps the film's funniest performance, The State's Thomas Lennon as the voice of the Computer on board The Heart of Gold.
The film gets bogged down in the final half-hour by bringing the romantic angle to the fore. But in spite of its flaws, the overall product is a winning one. And if the fanboys want to complain, hey, I'm pretty sure XXX2 starts this weekend, too.