May 2, 2005

A good time had around the Galaxy
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

What is the meaning of life? The nebulous answer is 42, according to A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but like an interstellar game of Jeopardy, the tricky part is finding the right question.

The film adaptation of Douglas Adams's classic sci-fi novel begins with a bang, but loses momentum as its superb cast aimlessly bounces around the galaxy.

The initial bang is the Earth's destruction, vaporized by the alien Vogons in order to build an intergalactic freeway. Fortunately for Arthur Dent, played by Martin Freeman from the BBC's The Office, he is saved by Ford Prefect, an alien disguised as a human in order to do research on Earth for additional entries in the interplanetary best seller A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Mos Def proves himself a phenomenal actor starring as Prefect, with subtle wit, quirky facial expressions, and impeccable timing. The first 20 minutes of the film, in which Dent and Prefect escape impending doom by hitching a ride with one of the spaceships that just destroyed Earth, are exciting, engaging, and hilarious. From here the film falls a bit flat, wandering around the galaxy in pursuit of plot lines.

The story is saved by an eclectic cast of quirky characters from around the universe. John Malkovich makes a quick appearance as preacher Humma Kavula. Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) gives a hilarious performance as galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox, with two heads and half a brain.

Beeblebrox's smug smirk, country drawl, and dim wits might remind viewers of a certain real-life president, but Beeblebrox doesn't wield any real power. He's just a political diversion for the expansionist, bureaucratic Vogons, who actually run the universe.

The film's humorous banter is enough to keep the movie fun as the hitchhikers jump from ship to ship in pursuit of a supercomputer (voiced by Helen Mirren) built by the ancient Magratheans that has spent the last 7.5 million years coming up with the answer that explains "life, the universe, and everything." To everyone's frustration, it finally offers "42" as the answer, leaving the hitchhikers back on the road again in pursuit of the question.

It's hard to say who will enjoy Hitchhiker more, the die-hard fan or the first-time hitchhiker. Those who read Adams's 1979 novel and its four sequels, listened to the late '70s radio series, watched the 1981 BBC miniseries, played the 1984 videogame, or read the early-'90s DC comics, will inevitably appreciate subtle references but complain about various inaccuracies.

The film is probably easier to enjoy for those outside the cult, because the film's real charm isn't the quasi-philosophy of the books, but the eccentric acting and wonderful visual effects.

Director Garth Jennings and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, who revised the script that Adams nearly completed before his death in 2001, deserve praise for resisting the temptation to turn the film into an orgy of special effects.

Instead, Jennings hired Jim Henson to do the pupeteering for the Vogons, and Marvin the Paranoid Android actually has Warwick Davis inside the robot costume. The simple visual effects complement the quirky humor of the cast.

The most important thing for any hitchhiker to remember, according to the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is "Don't Panic!"

There are parts of the film that will tempt viewers to wish they had left the book as it was, but don't panic, because the superb acting and visual fun make for a great ride.