My wife has never read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Her interest in sci-fi starts and ends with Star Wars and her affection for British humor doesn't go much past a Fish Called Wanda. She won't even sit through an episode of Star Trek or Monty Python's Flying Circus.
The Guide, in other words, is not her thing.
Neither was this movie.
I mention that because I’m about to really lay it on thick in praise of this film, and I want to be balanced: apparently, it’s very possible to be bored to tears by this movie.
Or, like me, you can be ecstatic.
A few hours before we went to see it, there was a show on TV I caught in passing that mentioned that Johnny Depp is going to play Willy Wonka in a remake of the great 70s movie, daring to tread in the shoes once worn - and worn down to brass tacks - by Gene Wilder in, arguably, one of Cinema’s all-time great performances. Seriously, Wilder’s Wonka is up there with De Niro’s Jake Lamota, Jodi Foster’s Clarice Starling and Bridges’ Lebowski, right?
Anyway, I’d say Depp, uniquely among modern actors, might pull it off. But as I watched the show today I thought: that’s a tall order to update that movie.
Which is exactly what I would have said about trying to bring the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the screen.
But they did it. In fact, they nailed it. As cross-genre adaptations go, it’s right there with Wonka. And they did it the same way Wonka managed to meet and exceed it’s own book: they rejected as many notions of traditional movie story-telling as possible, and they hired the Right Guy.
First, the Right Guy: I can only name three Sam Rockwell pictures, and two are grand slams: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” possibly the most overlooked movie of the new decade, and now Hitchhiker’s. Rockwell plays Zaphod Beeblebrox, the cartoonish hipster and space pirate who is also the President of the Galaxy (plot will not be outlined here – you know it already or you never will). Rockwell’s Beeblebrox is an instant classic, a rough mixture of Micheal Keaton’s surreal Beetlejuice and a double-shot of George Bush. Anybody NOT see Dubya in that performance? I thought it was glaring (and perfectly appropriate). In fact, I would bet all parties involved with this movie tilted Beeblebrox’s persona toward more American and more air-headed veins than the book’s Beeblebrox, just to capture some Dubya flavor.
Rockwell didn’t climb up on the pedastal with Wilder – he just doesn’t have enough screen time – but it’s still one for the ages. Rockwell is funny, optimistic and eternally delighted with life in the way that only the utterly oblivious – which is not to say ‘dumb; - can be. His body (covered in garish outfits) clicks and whirrs with nervous energy and he finishes every sentence with an unconsciously flip “alright” or similar. Beeblebrox starts the movie, as he did the book, with two heads (one fun and dim, the other mean and horny), with one on top of the other, the lower tucked into his shirt – and Rockwell even sells that.
I seem to remember Rockwell’s Beeblebrox on roller skates, though he wasn’t, just gliding around each scene on his own atmosphere of goofy chic.
(And how long before Rockwell and Edward Norton finally get it on. Something has to give. Soon. I see it going down as them playing co-leads - two brothers or best friends after the same girl, something - and whoever comes out of it the star is set for the next 20 years and whoever loses starts doing re-occurring roles on Desperate Housewives. I can’t wait.)
Past Zaphod, the movie’s key relationship – like the book’s - is between Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, an odd couple wonderfully realized by a funny brit I don’t feel like looking up and the American rapper Mos Def.
The brit, who I understand is a star over there, is perfectly serviceable as the whiny, frightened Arthur, combining slapstick with desperation as only the British can. I think a less-famous Hugh Grant might have done better, or that Colin guy. But this Arthur is fine.
Mos Def, on the other hand, was a brilliant hire. First, it makes Ford black, which just never would have occurred to me, but opens up a whole new line of metaphor. Second, Mos’ persona is detached and caustic in the Dave Chappelle mode (though not nearly as potent), and why not? The original Ford was a weeded-out 70s euro-gypsie, only his hitchhiking was between planets rather than EU members. That Ford wouldn’t play today, so why not make him an urban-cool black guy? Mos delivers all the key lines with enthusiasm and measured talent. Can’t ask for anymore.
And as for Trillian – well, she was disposable in the book, and she’s even more so here, played by a woman who isn’t Mary-Louis Parker and clearly can’t get over it. She tries the eye-roll, the halting cadence, the lip bite, the all-lower jaw talking motion. Nope.
Then there’s the Hitchhiker’s text. At times, the movie is slavish to it – the movie’s first joke (a construction foreman’s threat to Arthur) is directly lifted dialogue, the first instance of many. Other times, the movie feeds itself – the flyswatters that spring from the sand to swat people when they have ideas, the Jabba-like Malkovich character, the Brazil-like sequence of form-filling in a Vogan prison waiting room.
They all work, and have no doubt: I was ready with the hook.
In all, they got all three phases of an adaptation right: there is more than enough of unedited scripture for even the most demanding fan; where material was dated (Ford and Zaphod’s base note; the Guide’s user interface), they updated boldly; and what is completely new fits with the old like they were forged together (perhaps they were – Douglas Adams helped with the script before his death).
And then comes Slartibartfast and the Magrethean factory.
I haven’t read huge volumes of science fiction, but in what I have choked down, I’ve come across just two invented landscapes that still astound me. One is the interior of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama vehicle. The other was the Magreathean planet factory – an unfathomably huge building where the technicians and artists of Magreathea create planets like cars on an assembly line.
Forget about making the jokes funny or capturing the appropriate tone of daffy philosophy – any movie of the Hitchhiker’s Guide was going to live and die on its Magreathean factory.
Full marks. Even in today’s CGI world, the factory floor hit me with as much inspired force as the virtual canyons of Tron in the 80s. And the simple construction cage with the infinite telescoping rails was the perfect vehicle to navigate through it for Arthur and Slartibartfast (played by Bill Nighy in still more perfect-pitch casting, by the way).
I said before the movie came out that all I wanted was a film that was bravely different. Didn’t matter what that was, just as long as it wasn’t a bloodless, dull sci-fi movie draped over Adams’ book.
Picture “Stargate” with jokes – not that.
They did it – the Vogon’s fleet and horrible planet; the Mos Eisley-worthy bar scenes; the Guide’s terrific animations; even the depressive Marvin (and you got the joke right? His body was, to the every curve, a perfect reproduction of a Star Wars storm trooper uniform, only for a fat dwarf).
And a major shout-out to the interior of the Heart of Gold, the white-on-white, half-ship, half-sofa gallery that the quartet rides about in. Best retro-70s/NASA-chic interior since Blur’s “Music Is My Radar” video.
And as for the Heart’s spherical hull – a nod to Kubrick or to the trash collectors of Quark? Any guesses?
The weakest moment of the movie is the first, where the credits roll over a dolphin show set to the dreary, Hitchhiker’s-inspired showtune, “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.” I approve of the notion of adding some musical elements to this movie – why not? - just not this music. If anything, they should have updated Wonka’s signature tune, “A World Of Pure Imagination.”
OK, so this movie has no answer to the Oompa Loompas. Wonka remains the book-to-movie gold standard. But ‘pure imagination’ is exactly what this movie needed and, thankfully, exactly what it got.