Hitch a Ride Into the 'Galaxy'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

I HAVE TWO WORDS for fans of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," at least the ones worrying how the movie version will fare, given its inspired (and hallowed) source materials -- the wonderful television miniseries, radio series and the five-book "trilogy" all created by Douglas Adams.

Don't panic .

For the uninitiated, "don't panic" are the words that greet readers of the Hitchhiker's Guide, an extremely popular intergalactic handbook for travelers of the starry hugeness known as the universe. It's the repository of everything known and recorded. And the hapless Arthur Dent (played by Martin Freeman of the BBC series "The Office") finds it very useful to answer the baffling array of questions that befall him as he takes a rather involuntary journey across the galaxy. Why involuntary? Because the Englishman's planet, known as Earth ("Mostly harmless," says the guidebook), has just been obliterated to make way for an intergalactic superhighway.

Moments before that apocalyptic explosion (perhaps we should mention this is a comedy, eh?), Arthur's friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) has managed to hitch a ride for both of them on a passing spaceship of Vogons (nasty bureaucratic creatures who love reciting really bad poetry.) Ford, it turns out, is really an alien and not, as he previously claimed, a resident of Guildford, England. (That accent never quite sounded right.) This friendship certainly came in useful: Ford knew all along about Earth's fate and had Arthur's back.

This is just the beginning of a massively epic and wonderfully improbable trip that includes visits to other spaceships and planets, as well as travel by means of the Infinite Improbability Drive, which takes them through a near infinity of physical changes. (At one point they are temporarily sofas.) Arthur and Ford will meet a bevy of oddball characters, including the preening, dim-witted, two-headed president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell); the eternally depressed robot Marvin (voiced by a hilariously misanthropic Alan Rickman); an extremely bizarre quasi-spiritual leader named Humma Kavula (John Malkovich); and a sort of planet construction engineer known as Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy).

Given the fact that a quintessentially British show-book-franchise has been peopled with Brits and Americans and spearheaded by a Hollywood studio, this is more than a pleasant surprise. Adams died of a heart attack in 2001, but not before he had managed to write a second draft of the movie script. Karey Kirkpatrick, who scripted the very amusing "Chicken Run," and director Garth Jennings have not only faithfully conveyed Adams's spirit, but they have also added respectable flourishes of their own.

There is an opening musical number, involving dolphins, which brings the audience into the movie with a delicious whimsicality. The extraterrestrial sets are brilliantly conceived. The narration, by Stephen Fry, is perfect. And the actors, particularly Mos Def and Nighy, take their roles and streak across the galaxies with them. Rockwell is a tickle, too, as the addled leader whose comment "you can't be president with a whole brain" could resonate for just about any political sensibility.

There are at least two things, however, that will disappoint most fans of the original books and series: The original elements have been trimmed in places and redistributed, as if the screenplay itself had been put through the Infinite Improbability Drive. There are great bits and pieces of Adams's humor, but they're not always in the places you remember. And in the movie's worst (and non-Adamsy) element -- which one assumes was shoe-horned in by studio Vogons -- Arthur's journey is bookended with a romance with Trish McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow earthling Arthur meets at a party just before the big bang. But perhaps that's a good thing. After all, this is a movie about improbability, randomness and absurdity. It almost goes without saying, you can't get in a panic about having everything.

THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (PG, 110 minutes) -- Contains some sophisticated thematic elements and minor strong language. Area theaters.

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