There he is, his Defness!
—Garth Jennings, espying Mos Def during commentary track
“I love this bit,” gushes director Garth Jennings, “because I didn’t shoot any of the first five minutes of this film.” That is, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the first minutes are second unit footage from a seaworld theme park, featuring dolphins leaping and audience members in colorful baseball and caps slurping their drinks. Jennings delights in the joyful soundtrack song and bright blue water, noting that the dolphins pictured here are “happy,” meaning they only perform when they want to and so maintain their pink, healthy bellies, not usually seen on dolphins in captivity.
Sharing his pleasure for the purposes of this commentary track are producer Nick Goldsmith, and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy (a second track features producer Robbie Stamp and a friend of the late Douglas Adams, Sean Solle, alongside a mostly uninformative “Making of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and two sets of deleted scenes, the second being “really deleted”). Their observations range from fond memories to wry, self-deprecating humor. Watching himself in the green bathrobe and pajamas he’d wear through most of the film (as Arthur), Freeman laments, “I looked frumpy, I looked fat, I was working out three times a week and I still ballooned to zeppelin size. And I thought I was going to get fired, because obviously in Hollywood you’re not allowed to be over a size eight.”
The scene in question, in a pub, takes place just as Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is bringing his friend some very very bad news. Arriving just at the moment that a road crew is about to demolish Arthur’s modest home to make way for a “highway bypass,” Ford offers the crew free beer, a surefire distraction, then buys his friend a pint to ease the shock of his two news points: 1) Ford is an alien space traveler, and 2) the planet earth is about to be destroyed, that is, within the next 10 minutes or so. Make that seven or eight. As Ford notes, time is an illusion. As the commentary guys chortle over Freeman’s frumpy look and Nighy’s comparative “ranginess,” the scene cuts to a flashback wherein Arthur meets the love of his life, the simultaneously lovely and dashing Trillion (Zoey Deschanel), dressed in a suit, top hat, and long grey beard (this to not match Arthur’s pith helmet, as they are meeting at a costume party. Nighy recalls this is the “sweet meet” scene, sending the entire company into paroxysms of laughter, as they hunt down the correct term, the “cute meet” or is it the “meet cute”? Ah “sweet meet”—much better!
Arthur, back in the film, finds himself snatched up by Ford at the last second of earth’s existence. They hitch a ride on the nearest vehicle, belonging to the universe’s most determinedly bureaucratic race, the Vogons. It happens that they are also the folks behind the planet’s demolition, insisting that they need to make way for a “hyperspace bypass.” As the world explodes behind them (following a series of stock images to suggest the world’s locations about to be decimated, as Jennings suggests they were trying to “do that round-the-world thing without repeating what’s already been done by Michael Bay a million times?”, the answer being to insert shots of sheep running for cover in green pasture).
Aboard the ship, Ford reveals himself to be armed with a towel (useful in most every circumstance) and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (whose cover assures, “Don’t panic”), Ford proceeds to instruct the occasionally flustered Arthur in the negotiation of the brilliantly new expanse before him. When the ugly, lumbering, awkwardly-nosed Vogons detect their presence, Ford and Arthur are initially trussed up and forced to listen to the most horrible poetry in the galaxy, then flushed out into space, fortuitously hitching their next ride, on the not-quite-passing ship belonging to the self-loving, two-headed President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, trying his darnedest to channel President Bush, with intermittent success). Together, they pursue the answer to an ultimate question (the meaning of life, essentially), dropping by planets mostly accidentally.
In part, their adventures are held together by Arthur’s longing for Trillion. She’s hooked up with the romantic-seeming Zaphod, whose crew includes as well the incessantly depressed, huge-minded, nicely CGI-ed robot Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman: “I have a million ideas, they all point to certain death”), but whatever she sees in her new beau remains unknown. Arthur’s yearning makes the movie something of a romance, in addition to its science-fictional, philosophical, and boys’ adventure dimensions.
But for all its possibilities—and its crazily pleasant animations—the movie takes a more or less conventional narrative shape. The motley crew is repeatedly buffeted by forces beyond their control, especially when they hit the ship’s hyperspace button. This sends them hurtling through time and space, and deposits them in assorted fanciful embodiments (as when all are turned into yarn dolls, and Arthur, his tummy turned by the buffeting, pukes colorful woolen strings). In each instance, they only have to wait until the ship’s sprightly, game-show-host-like computer fixes them, such that “normality” is restored.
The film occasionally challenges this seeming faith in normality as concept and experience (usually through the novels’ favorite devices, puns and asides). But for the most part, this Hitchhiker’s Guide assumes a low-key tolerance of the way things are. For all its bells and whistles, the search for meaning, much like a colorful traipse through Oz, takes you back to the mundane, where you might better appreciate your black-and-white lot. And so, this movie takes Arthur and company round to a planet where a cult, led by John Malkovich (a role Adams, who died in 2001, wrote for the film), ritually worship a sneeze (the “bess you gag!” smiles Jennings). “Malkoid”‘s suddenly revealed, and many, tap-tapping mechanical feet, emerging directly from his abbreviated torso in less-than-effective CGI, make some points about gulf between appearance and experience, but the scene, like many others, underline the film’s ineffectively episodic structure. And during another stop, they meet an architect of custom planets, Slartibartfast (Nighy), who offers to rebuild earth for the currently homeless Arthur.
Perhaps the film’s most provocative innovation is the POV (point of view) Gun, with which the shooter can instantly impose his perspective on a target, invented, reports the Guide narrator, by “a group of housewives who had become utterly sick of ending every domestic argument with the words, ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’” Once Trillian gets a hold of this potent weapon, her vulnerability is exposed, which means she finally breaks through Zaphod and Arthur’s self-obsessions. But as the film never suggests how her life will improve once they “get it,” Trillion seems left adrift.