Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is an amiable sort. Generous, sweet-natured, and easygoing, he wanders into the film of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a little late, and in no particular hurry. This despite the fact that he has showed up to rescue his friend Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) from the end of the world.
Ford is a part well-suited to Mos Def, who brings his trademark earnestness and calm. Ford arrives just at the moment that a road crew is about to demolish Arthur’s modest home to make way for a “highway bypass” (by offering free beer, a surefire distraction), then trundles his green bathrobe-wearing friend off to a nearby pub, so they can have a pint and he can disclose a couple of startling news points: 1) Ford is an alien space traveler, and 2) the planet earth is about to be destroyed, er, within the next 10 minutes or so. Make that seven or eight. As Ford notes, time is an illusion.
Understandably startled, Arthur doesn’t at first grasp the situation entirely; he’s reminded that on their first meeting, Ford was trying to shake hands with a car, and Arthur had to dive into the road to tackle and rescue him (“I thought cars were the dominant life force,” Ford recalls with a smile). The world-ending business, well, that requires a bit of fast action, and so Ford grabs hold of Arthur and holds up his ring and hitches them 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, Ford settles into looking after his companion. 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 episodic adventures are held together by Arthur’s longing for another passenger on Zaphod’s ship, the pleasantly ambiguous Trillion (Zoey Deschanel, bringing the same sort of sensible ethereality she bestowed on the otherwise spastic Elf). She’s somehow hooked up with Zaphod (whose crew includes as well the incessantly depressed, huge-minded, robot Marvin, voiced by Alan Rickman, as in, “I have a million ideas, they all point to certain death”), but whatever she sees in her new beau remains unknown. One of those infinite mysteries, perhaps.
With Arthur’s yearning, the film becomes something of a romance, in addition to its science-fictional, philosophical, and boys adventure dimensions. Such multiplicity may please the legions of Guide fans, who know what they’re seeking in this latest adaptation of Adams’ long-lived venture (it started as a BBC radio series [first aired in 1978], and thereafter turned into novel and tv series, albums and games). This long-anticipated movie (supposedly in the works for over 20 years, at one time attaching Jim Carrey), which means that some of the ideas, in being faithful to the source, also feel dated, that is, not especially new insights (mass media are deceitful, corporate workers are boring and shortsighted, boys are nervous about expressing their feelings to girls… well, okay, some old concerns remain unresolved).
Just so, the film takes a more or less conventional narrative shape, such that the motley crew is repeatedly buffeted by forces beyond their control. This particularly whenever they hit the ship’s hyperspace button, which 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 (Malkovich’s suddenly revealed, and many, tap-tapping mechanical feet, emerging directly from his abbreviated torso, make some points about gulf between appearance and experience). And during another stop, they meet an architect of custom planets, Slartibartfast (the always engaging Bill 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 seems to break 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.