Although most any form of art can stick with the viewer or listener long after they've experienced it, novels seem to possess the most such magic. That's probably because readers -- if the work is written well enough -- envision the story in their heads, doing all of the work that movie casts and crews spend years and millions of dollars doing on the big screen. There are certain novels that I remember in fine detail, despite having not read them for decades. Others have fallen through the cracks of my mind, but that's usually because they weren't good or memorable, or simply because I didn't enjoy them.
The one exception to that unofficial rule is Douglas Adams' highly imaginative, extremely enjoyable and certainly unforgettable "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Originally aired as a radio broadcast and then adapted by the late Adams in literary form, the work has been read by millions -- including yours truly long, long ago -- who enjoyed the galactic antics of one Arthur Dent, his eclectic collection of friends and acquaintances, and the author's clever, witty and irreverent look at us, the universe, and our place in it.
The strange thing is that before our recent screening of the big screen adaptation of the work -- that follows a BBC miniseries that aired back in the 1980s -- I couldn't remember a thing about the work, other than having enjoyed it earlier in my life. Even more bizarre is that other reviewers I talked to before our earlier theaterical screening had the same observation. They recall reading and liking it, but couldn't remember much of anything that occurred in it.
While more current readers and the diehard aficionados of the work obviously probably won't have that problem, and conspiracy buffs might think there's something in between the written lines that collectively erased the work from our minds, the memory lapse will probably serve this effort well. And that's because any such viewers -- without any sort of comparative qualities beyond the general, lasting impression, probably won't be as disappointed by this effort that's fabulous at times, but downright boring, convoluted or rushed at others.
Those who have no knowledge of the previous work may just end up scratching their heads, unsure of what they've just experienced. As penned by Adams (who died in 2001) and Karey Kirkpatrick ("The Little Vampire," "Chicken Run"), the story jams so many fine details, characters, sci-fi elements and goofy material into its less than two hour runtime that many might feel they've been bowled over by a film gone amok.
Directed by Garth Jennings (a music video and TV commercial veteran making his feature debut) the film comes off as a near relentless and fast-paced combination of "Buckaroo Banzai," vintage Monty Python and the subsequent works of Python member Terry Gilliam (such as "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen").
When viewed as a whole, the film is something of a mess. Scenes, characters and details fly by so fast it's nearly impossible to note, let alone comprehend all of them. That results in something of a jumbled mess where the various elements don't always gel into a collective whole and one gets the sense that the filmmakers tried too hard to get all of the literary work's material (along with some brand new stuff) into this film. In the end, viewers will likely feel overwhelmed and/or bored -- which is something of an interesting side effect combination -- and will come to realize that character and overriding story have been pushed into the back of the spaceship in favor of all the little details.
That said, it's in those very elements that the film is clever, imaginative and often downright funny. From the antiquated cartoon animations that appear in the title object -- which is something of an interactive and futuristic PDA -- to lines of dialogue and an opening musical number featuring dolphins that simply has to be seen to be fully appreciated, the film is packed with all sorts of delightful, funny and sometimes downright hilarious individual moments.
I just wish they all added up to something more. While the overall theme is still present -- I did recall it and various elements once I saw them on the screen -- the overall effort isn't as good as its various individual elements. All of which means we just go from one goofy or imaginative set piece to the next, with little connective tissue between them, resulting in a story that doesn't fully engage the viewer. It also shortchanges the performers cast in the various eclectic parts.
While we never learn much about his character (or the others for that matter), and there's little to no related growth or development, Martin Freeman ("Love Actually," the BBC TV show "The Office") otherwise seems perfectly cast (in terms of physicality and overall blasť temperament) as the Earthling who ends up going on the journey of his life. Mos Def ("The Woodsman," "The Italian Job") is initially quite amusing and charming as his friend who saves him, but his character looses steam and our interest as the convoluted and messy story unfolds.
Sam Rockwell ("Matchstick Men," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") gets one of the most flamboyant roles as the two-headed President of the galaxy (one noggin flips back on his neck when the hidden one wishes to speak), but his character eventually becomes rather boring when not simply annoying. Zooey Deschanel ("Elf," "Almost Famous") appears as the only other human survivor of Earth's demolition -- for a galactic expressway -- but a romantic triangle quandary between her and Freeman and Rockwell's characters never amounts to much.
Some of the better work comes from the verbal-only performances (emanating from non-human characters). Stephen Fry ("Gosford Park," "Wilde") serves as the film and guide's occasional narrator and Richard Griffiths ("Stage Beauty," the "Harry Potter" films) voices one of the aliens who looks like a caricature of a hunchbacked, old and crotchety Brit. Alan Rickman ("Love Actually," the "Harry Potter" films) is delightful voicing a depressed and dejected robot with an oversized head and too much knowledge of the gloom and doom in the universe.
Contrasting that is Bill Nighy ("Love Actually," "Shaun of the Dead") who steals his scenes as a planetary contractor who's building a replacement for Earth. The scenes featuring his droll and weary but optimistic character, as well as brief but funny moments of putting the finishing touches on Earth II are a delight. As are many of the film's individual moments that should prove to be memorable to those who see this wacky, sci-fi offering.
I can't attest to whether the overall film will suffer the same fate of the novel and end up MIA somewhere in our heads, but I won't forget the feeling of wishing the entire picture were as good as its many superb individual elements. Fun, funny and interesting at times, but rushed, haphazard and boring at others, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" gets a slight recommendation.