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2005-05-30My review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 2005

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Nutshell review: Old fan. Thoroughly enjoyed this version.

I laughed and cried. At pretty much the same time, during the whale scene. It's a defining moment in Hitchhiker's... literally, as it involves a whale called into existence out of thin air (due to circumstances we'll skip over) and it giving names to things and building up a coherent picture of its surrounding before... splat. Bill Bailey's voiceover really hammers home what a metaphor for human existence the passage is.

I'd conjecture a reason some longterm fans may have found themselves feeling unsettled as the film unfolds (as it turns out some have) is the opening sequence, which skips past in a few minutes what it takes the first episode of the TV series twenty or more to cover. People remember the beginnings of things, and the scene with the bulldozers is a point of rather uncommon consistency between the radio show, books and TV series: people remember Prosser lying down in Arthur's place in front of the bulldozer, they remember the "Beware of the Leopard" exchange. The film makes it a priority to get away from Earth as soon as possible; not unreasonably, as it has a whole book to cram in, or three hours of either a radio show or a TV series, if you want to think about it in those terms. The credits suggest that the book has been the main reference, probably because audiences are most familiar with that order of events with film adaptations...

There are updates, of course: Arthur has a camera phone, so that we can see his memory of Trillian; Ford thrusts fifty quid (not five) at the barman and tells him to keep the change. The biggest change, however, is probably the emphasis on visual comedy. There's plenty of trademark Hitchhiker's wordplay, but also some slapstick and bladder.

Stephen Fry is excellent as the voice of the Guide, and doesn't play it as an ego piece. At times he's very close to the intonation of the late Peter Jones, and the graphics that accompany most entries capture the simplicity of those from the TV series (with much more fluid animation, somewhat reminiscent of iPod commercials.) The visuals which accompany the Infinite Improbability Drive hops are also nicely varied, and not dwelled upon to the point of interfering with the pace of the film. (We get to see the cast as crocheted dolls, whilst at another point they're all spitting up a last few flower petals...)

I'll come back to the new additions in the course of discussing some of the responses I've seen elsewhere, though. This first one was rather thought-provoking:

"Adams is at pains throughout the Hitchhiker's stories to expose modern humans for what they are, and to show what they might become if they could somehow escape the debilitating trappings of civilization. This is what Trillian longs to do, and what Arthur learns to do. The film understands this, and this understanding is at the heart of the much-criticized romance."

"By having the mice strap Arthur down and threaten him with a totally pointless and ridiculously cruel procedure, the film makes a not-so-subtle point: this is what we do to mice (and other animals) everyday."

—Someone at AintItCool, identified as 'Andrew'

The film does set up larger parallels between Vogons and humans than previous HH tellings, by featuring them much more and giving us an insight into their development. Though they represent senseless bureaucracy, they aren't born that way. It's culturally drummed into them, and like Arthur they gradually lose the ability to be spontaneous or think decisively for themselves.

Jabs at organised religion (Oolon Colluphid, the general parody in Humma Kavula's sect) are included or retained; the CAP review reassuringly includes under Wanton Crime / Violence "destruction of the Earth" and "parasite penetration into a human head" plus under Offense to God "tale of man not being the most intelligent life on Earth", "claiming man is an ape descendant, repeatedly", "belittlement of God, Creation and faith" and "Darwinism". Nice to see they were paying attention, though they could have gotten the order right—ie, third most intelligent, at least until the dolphins and mice abandon us.

So long and thanks for all the fish. So sad that it should come to this. We tried to warn you all but oh dear! You may not share our intellect, which might explain your disrespect, for all those natural wonders that grow (around you). So long, so long and thanks for all the fish...

Speaking of reviews enhancing films, some of my enjoyment also probably derives from having read a lengthy spoiler dissection of the film by a guy called M.J. Simpson before going to watch. Knowing what not to expect was encouragement to view the film as its own entity rather than wait expectantly for copying of existing media, as though he says "I have been widely criticised for wanting the film to exactly replicate the book, even though I never suggested any such thing" the tone of his dissection is certainly that much more should have been included verbatim. And I'd agree a little, but only a little...

Before I went into the cinema, I was mulling over the loss of the leopard sign and the guide entries for Earth and towels, but came out of it with appreciation that the film tends to show rather more than tell. You're left in no doubt how important towels are, it's underlined that Vogons are the sort of race who would catch jewelled crabs just to smash them, and it should take the average person less than a minute to realise that the paddles on Vogsphere slap anyone who displays any form of independent thought or creative idea—it's good that some things can be done without being spelled out, you know? As for the visuals of the Magratheans rebuilding Earth and montage footage of wild animals and natural wonders... I think Douglas Adams would have loved them.

That's one advantage to the Earth being destroyed and restored from backup within the same film: it's stressed very, very firmly what an incredible a place it is.

Yes, I can see why someone who has lived and breathed the text of other Hitchhikers versions for years might not appreciate some things about this one. It deals far more with images than words, adds a whole bunch of stuff not in any previous incarnation, and plays free and easy with what it chooses to include. However, I can't see why Bill Bailey adlibbing to make the whale monologue two seconds longer with "hello ground" and suit his delivery is deserving of such a petty-sounding rant as it receives.

Gilding the thorn is a comment elsewhere (amidst some taking-my-ball-and-going-home rhetoric): "Although those people who took the trouble to read my long review were, in the most part, extremely complimentary about my analysis and as dismayed as I am about the route that the film has taken [...]" However it's intended, it comes across as: those who were dismayed probably didn't read the review and/or didn't understand it.

Which wasn't hard, I'd suggest. The author didn't appreciate much of the humour (which is something that may be empirically demonstrable, but certainly isn't an absolute) and got bogged down in over-analysis of the rest, such as when trying to deconstruct the point-of-view gun subplot. Criticisms ranged from Humma Kavula knowing about the gun (when he seems to be speculating on the basis of rumour), why only one remains (we're actually shown a wall of trophy racks, without the suggestion that the gun is anything but unique) and so on. In the next part he concedes, "Maybe I'm thinking too deeply about this" ... and yes, honestly I rather think so. Expecting plot sense from HHGTTG is an exercise in futility. We could sit and poke apart the fourth book for hours on end.

So I don't think that the film-makers missed the point; they just produced a movie some people didn't like and others did. The film didn't annoy me, didn't confuse me and I enjoyed it. No agency has taken away the radio shows, books, TV shows, comics, stage play, text adventure game or other existing forms of HHGTTG—rather, we've gained another version that will drive interest towards the others. And with a fourth and fifth season of radio shows forthcoming from the BBC, the original radio scripts back in print¹ and a ton of other material available, now is a great time to be a fan.

And yes, most of this was written weeks ago... I didn't just get around to seeing it...


  1. For which I do thank Mr Simpson for prodding the publishers to release. I despaired of ever getting a local library to part with the copy I read more than ten years ago, which was my first exposure to HHGTTG. The reprint volume is extremely nice, and another will be released for the third, fourth and fifth series. Since I keep missing the radio show eps even when they're posted on the web, this will probably be the way I experience them. It seems rather appropriate.

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