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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Akin to Vogon Poetry

They say a movie is never as good as the book it's based on, and yet The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy never began as a book. Indeed, if anything, the success of the late Douglas Adams's franchise has been its adaptability to various media. Starting out as a BBC Radio series in 1978, it later became a second radio series, a BBC Television series, yet another radio series, a "trilogy" of books equaling five in number, a stage play in there somewhere, and a computer game. It has finally reached storytelling nirvana as a feature film distributed by a major studio. Later this year it'll resurface yet again as a radio series on the BBC. So there's plenty of Hitchhiker to go around.

The creative minds behind this cinematic undertaking have their hearts in the right place and hired the right visual artists to make a go of it. The major film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does an admirable job of conveying, as the "Hitchhiker" book puts it, just how "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big" the universe actually is --- and has enough tongue-in-cheek to mimic the chuckle-inducing elements of Adams's writing, which borders on astute social commentary, even if it dumbs down the actual language.

The story revolves around the adventures of a hapless Englishman named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, "The Office") who tries to prevent his home from being demolished to make way for a bypass (British for expressway). At the last second, he's whisked off Earth by a mysterious alien named Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who's a researcher for a book called "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", just before the planet is destroyed by the Vogons (considered the worst poets in the universe) to make room for a hyperspace bypass. Apparently, dolphins were always trying to tell humans about this imminent threat but we misread their signs as simply appeals for more fish. (Such jocular ironies permeate Adams's writing.)

Meanwhile, two-headed, ego-driven Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) is tooling around the galaxy in a stolen spaceship with earth girl Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and depressed robot Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) when they find themselves in the right place at the right time to rescue Arthur and Ford after they've been tossed out of an airlock from the Vogon ship.

Adams peppers his writing with such mathematical improbabilities, and such unlikely situations and encounters abound. Our heroes meet a planetary architect named Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy), whose favorite work is the Norwegian fjords, and a super-duper-smart computer named Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren), a race of "hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings" built to calculate the answer to the "ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything."

Unfortunately, Hitchhiker feels like a dull ride after the initial thrill wears off. Perhaps it's because the newness for me wasn't all that new, having heard the radio series 20 years ago and read the first two books equally long ago. But even the initially ecstatic audience with whom I saw the film cooled to it by the end -- probably because the ending feels so cobbled together and inadequate. Sorry, but this is no Galaxy Quest.

The problem lies not with the art direction. The sets, aliens, costumes are uniformly terrific and truly inspired. The problem lies with the people direction. First-time feature film director Garth Jennings's prior work was music videos and commercials. Directing a feature-length comedy requires a special set of skills that understands comedic pacing. That is utterly lacking here.

Sam Rockwell, who practically channels Owen Wilson in his grating characterization of Zaphod, comes across as a one-note actor. Mos Def, a very interesting choice for Ford, fades into the background as the film progresses. Worse of all is Zooey Deschanel, whose Trillian shifts from engaging romantic interest to disinterested bystander without explanation. I hate to think it's because they're British, but Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, and Stephen Fry (as The Book) give their voice-over roles the most zest. John Malkovich has a small, unsettling role as a religious cult leader Humma Kavula (not found in the book) that goes nowhere.

Hitchhiker sets itself up nicely for a sequel set at the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" (title of Book 2) but don't count on it lending any more insight to the satire and wisdom of Douglas Adams unless it can find a director who can actually direct actors, and a screenwriter better adept at migrating Adams's brand of humor to the screen.Hitchhiker scriptwriter Karey Kirkpatrick may have done a great job with "Chicken Run" but he fumbled here. (If you do see the film, sit through the end credits so you'll catch an amusing, satirical story narrated by The Book.)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars