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Epth is a state of mind, not a place. Reading this will give you a virtual drivers license in that state, but you'll still need to be 21 to purchase alcohol. And you can't get any there anyway, so stop asking.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Guide to Hitchhiker's Guide

There is something about the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that is irresistible to those who are both 14-24 years old and smart. It's imagination is like crack to them -- they can't wait for more of the story, to see what Adams comes up with next*. For those who are older, or younger, or dumb, it's just not that great.

Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy
is therefore a movie that quite simply not everyone is going to get. There is first of all a big division between people who are familiar with the story and people who aren't. For the second group, it's possible to see this as just a movie; for the first, it's impossible to view it outside the context of the other Hitchhiker's incarnations. I saw the movie, and I literally have no idea whether or not it was any good in any objective sense. I'm not here to "review" it, I'm here to tell you what I thought of it, especially as it relates to the novel.

Reading the online reviews of the film, people generally fall into four camps:
  1. Hitchhiker's novice who doesn't get the movie and sees it as plotless, unfunny, and hard to follow.
  2. Hitchhiker's novice who sees the movie as a funny thrill ride.
  3. Hitchhiker's fan who likes the film despite it's flaws and changes to the original story.
  4. Hitchhiker's fan who views the film as ruining everything they ever loved, including baby kittens.
I'm a #3, but in one sense they're all correct -- how you see the movie depends on your previous exposure to Adams' work, as well as your sense of humor and tolerance for plotless comedies. Having made this long disclaimer, I will now attempt to explain why I fall into category 3.

My first criteria for evaluating a comedy is always: Is it funny? And I can say that HG2TG** is often very funny. So in that sense, it "worked" for me, and I was going to like it no matter what. People who claim that it's not being faithful to the original story need to realize that it's not just one story -- it's been a radio play, a book, a video game, a play, a miniseries, etc. -- and that each of these became slightly different to make it work in the specific medium the creators were dealing with. Hitchhiker's is not Holy Writ, nor should it be treated as such. What matters most is the overall story arc (from earth's destruction to Heart of Gold to Magrathea) and how funny it is. Like I said, don't panic, it's funny.

(Part of the genius that is Douglas Adams is his ability to write catchphrases in the text of his stuff that are infinitely usable and reusable. For example, how many reviewers do you think called the movie mostly harmless? I'd say three out of 10.)

Now, with some kind words said, I wish to register my complaints. The main problem with the film is that it's too short. I know, I know -- you don't believe me after sitting through as many overblown Hollywood blockbusters as there have been in the past 30 years. But I'm being totally serious -- at 1 hour 49 minutes, the film feels rushed (my theory is that it feels this way to appease Hollywood execs who wanted to cover up the lack of a plot), and more importantly leaves out a lot of the good lines from the book. If they would have added an hour to it, put all the good lines back in, slowed down the pace a little, made it more of a dialogue-driven thing (like the book was), then HG2TG novices may have been able to understand the movie better, and HG2TG geeks would have been overjoyed. I bet they just didn't want to spend the money or time to make a proper Hitchiker's movie, and the directors did what they could in under 2 hours. I don't know that Disney (the owners of the film) is to blame for this, but they're the main suspects.

Just about every problem I had with the film can be traced back to the film's shortness. For example, Trillian barely seems like a real character to me, and Ford not at all. This is not the actor's fault -- the characters just don't have enough defining lines. In the book, there were clearly 4 protagonists. In the movie, there's one protagonist, one sidekick (Ford), one love interest (Trillian), and one antagonist/clown (Zaphod). That Zaphod comes across as more fleshed-out than anyone besides Arthur is a problem. They left most of Zaphod's lines in, and took most of Ford's out. If there were more dialogue, this problem would have been cleared up. It's frustrating because the movie could have been near-perfect.

Also frustrating is the Church of Viltvoodle VI, which just has to look like a Christian church on earth, doesn't it? Ha ha, they're making fun of Theists. Isn't atheism fun? Seriously, I never thought of the books as Atheist when I first read them. Heck, the earth in the books is intelligently designed (well, designed anyway). There's a fascinating discussion to be had about Adams' Atheism and how his thoughts in the books constantly undercut the idea that there is no God. That discussion will not be had here.

A lot of hard-core HG2TG fans don't like the inclusion of an Arthur-Trillian-Zaphod bizarre love triangle one bit. I don't see what the big deal is (at least until the end of the film, but I get to that in a second). It makes sense in the context of the movie, isn't that enough? Don't people realize that all comedies made by hollywood these days have a pointless love story in them? Think about all the greats and supposed greats -- Office Space, Old School, Airplane!, etc. -- all of them have a pointless romance to drive the story along. Not only that, but this love story made total sense, like I said. At least until the very end of the movie, that is. You see, the book version of Arthur just wants to go home and be normal. It's his defining characteristic. The movie version gives him this love motivation that overrides that tendency for normality, and at the end he decides to explore space with Trillian and co. rather than stay on a completely remade earth. It's sweet and cheesy and totally Hollywood, so rabid HG2TG fans hate it reflexively.

Having gotten that crap out of the way, I will now concentrate on everything I liked about the film, which is most of it. The casting was inspired, from Office Tim as Arthur Dent to Hans Gruber as Marvin. Much has been made of Mos Def, black man, as Ford Prefect, but he's just fine. They just cut out a bunch of his good lines, that's all.

Jason Schwartzman as Gag Halfrunt. Am I the only one who noticed this? Judging by the imdb, probably so.

Although the song was cheesy and cringe-inducing, I liked the dolphin opening credits. It was a nice way to introduce such a zany world.

I am of the camp that says a HG2TG movie is only as good as its Infinite Improbability Drive, and the execution of that bit was pretty cool, especially when everyone turned into yarn people. They could have explained it a little better, though, since it's the narrative reason why Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, and Trillian all ended up on the same ship. Somehow in the movie's blistering pace I don't think the average Hitchhiker's novice got that.

The mice...are funny. As is the Deep Thought bit. As is the Vogon Poetry bit. As are the Guide entries with the minimalist animation. Zaphod Beeblebrox as a Clinton/Bush Hybrid was winkingly awesome, and made me laugh out loud. The doors' happy whine killed me the first time I heard it. Vogsphere is a testament to great design, as are the Vogons themselves. I liked how everything the Vogons did was dependent upon people filling out the correct forms. Very Brazil-esqe. In fact, just about everything that was amusing in the book is amusing in the movie. That's got to count for something, right? All you hard-core Guide fans who hated the movie -- are you that jaded and blind? What's your problem, anyway? What's the frequency, Zaphod?

I say, go out and see it now, everyone. It beat XXX2 this week, and not only because America is unwilling to believe a 5'2" black guy who's named after a water formation as an action hero.



*Which is why many of us found the fifth book, Mostly Harmless, so disappointing, since the middle-finger-to-the-audience ending made it clear there was to be no more Adams imagination, at least in book form.

**The standard internet convention for acronyzing Hitchhiker's is H2G2, which is stupid because it sounds like one of those spare robots in Star Wars that were captives of the Jawas with R2D2 and C3PO, and whose action figures were the only ones you could find on the shelf (besides Greedo of course).

5 Comments:

  • At 11:24 AM, Blogger the professional said…

    hi mike.

    i just recently read HG2G and so it is both fresh in my memory and faint in my memory at the same time. i understand how this could be; hopefully you do also.

    i don't remember his name, but was the robot character included? and if so, how much? was he as whiny and self-deprecating as he is in the original book? i could have totally missed that in your post --i read it quickly.

    i just think that if there was potential for anything in that movie to be hilarious in a subtle way, it would be the robot and his incessant whining.

    just wonderin'.
    also, did you come up for a good metaphor for Fox yet? i just now thought of one, but it's totally weak: glass Heinz 57 ketchup bottles. man those things suck. i hate restaurants that have them. but ketchup is so necessary sometimes. nah. i don't like it. any ideas?

     
  • At 1:47 PM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    I've been trying to think of things that are horrible overall, but are essential because of one or two things. You'd think that would be easy, but I haven't come up with it yet. Maybe the Kobe/Shaq Lakers (I've got basketball on the brain right now). I'll keep thinking. Thinking is hard.

     
  • At 4:07 PM, Blogger pete said…

    I was pleasantly surpised to see Hitchhikers royally rock on #### at the box office. In my typically cynical view of our culture I just assumed that every high school boy would line up to see something with a title like Triple X. Perhaps there is hope for us yet, although I am disappointed to learn about Arthur giving up on Earth for Trillian. One of the things I loved about him was that I couldn't totally identify with him. Sometimes he is ignorantly cool or brave and other times he is just a dweeb. I will withhold full judgment until I view the movie.

    Next on the movie agenda for me, however, is the I-already-know-the-entire-plot-but-I-am-dying-to-see-the-effects Star Wars culmination.

     
  • At 4:38 PM, Blogger the professional said…

    michael, you didn't answer my question about the robot. like, hello?

    totally duh.

     
  • At 6:28 AM, Blogger Mike Pape said…

    I am amazed that HG2TG beat XXX2. Just amazed.

    And Andrew, Marvin was in the movie, played by the guy who played Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard movie. He has some good lines, but more importantly looks really cool.

     

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