REVIEW You'll want to hitchhike out of theater
Fans will use their towels to cry in after this muck-up.
By ROGER MOORE
OK, panic. Grab your towel and have a good cry.
They've finally gone and made a "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie. And they've blown it. Not completely. Just enough to break an interstellar hitchhiker's heart.
The beloved Douglas Adams radio series that inspired the books, TV series, stage shows and video games was the closest thing to a sci-fi sure thing to come down the British comedy pike. And darned if Disney, the screenwriter of "Chicken Run" and the director of, well, Blur videos didn't squish the fun right out of it.
It's a beautiful film to look at. And the witty, post-Python 1970s BBC radio series -- six hours of droll, brilliantly imaginative sci-fi fun -- was never going to be an easy thing to shape into a movie. But stripping the dialogue-and-joke-heavy tale of its words and its whimsy is no way to go.
Fans will be disappointed. Nonfans will be lost -- utterly up the creek without their towels.
An early example. The hero, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), is arguing with a bulldozer crew about to knock over his house, and he has just been told he should have protested before now because the details of the demolition have been "on display" in his local planning office.
"It was on display ... in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet ... stuck in a disused lavatory ... with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the leopard!'" says Arthur in the book, the radio series, the TV series. Funny.
What's the line in the movie?
"They were in the basement."
The wordplay is gone. So is the laugh.
At least the plot has been wrestled into something workable. Arthur, the last surviving Earth man, is plucked from the planet just before it is blown up by his hitchhiking alien pal, Ford Prefect (Mos Def). They are tortured by poetry-reading Vogons (troll-beast bureaucrats), tossed into space, picked up by a ship with Infinite Improbability Drive piloted by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and his new girl, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a woman Arthur once met at a party.
The ship has computers with GPP, "Genuine People Personalities," and a robot, Marvin (the voice of Alan Rickman), who despite "a brain the size of a planet" has "this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side."
The two-headed Zaphod has stolen the ship to find the legendary world of Magrathea, which once was the home of a custom-built-planet industry.
Along their journeys, the space travelers consult "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," an electronically illustrated E-book full of everything a hitchhiker needs to know about the universe. Stephen Fry (Wilde) is the voice of "the book."
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
Fry's wit helps
Fry is one of the best things about the attempted adaptation. The book narrates the tale, illustrates the creatures and places the hitchhikers encounter, and it is read with Fry's dry Brit-wit.
Rockwell's Zaphod is a hipster doofus, Sammy Hagar with a drawling George W. Bush stupor. Alan Rickman is in good voice, imitating the actor who did Marvin for TV and radio.
But it's a sign of how muddled the edit of this is that we never learn why no hitchhiker would ever be caught dead without his towel.
"A towel is about the most massively useful thing any interstellar hitchhiker can carry. . . . You can wrap it around you for warmth on the cold moons of Jaglan Beta. ... Use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat. ..." And so on.
But the late Adams left out one use -- something to cry in after they've gone and mucked up a beloved book. Fans, go back to the book/video/CD you cherished.
And mutter what Adams insisted was the dirtiest swear word in the known universe.
Belgium, man. Belgium.