I really don't want to come across as one of the fanboy purists. I don't expect cross-media adaptations to duplicate their source material note for note and I often don't like those that do. That's why I'm not being complimentary when I say the greatest thrill in the modern Hollywood megabudget version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes from its evocation of the decidedly lo-fi television shows and radio plays made a quarter-century ago.
The new Hitchhiker's Guide produced a number of mild laughs, most of which had been knocking around in the cellar for a couple of decades, and one moment of most transcendent joy. It happened when "Journey of a Sorceror," the theme to the old BBC radio and television Hitchhiker's, came out of absolutely nowhere to play over the titles. Obviously, this is a thrill that depends on memory and referentiality (self-referentiality and therefore not quite of the sort that's causing such a stir, but only just barely): it only affects you if you have warm memories of those earlier adaptations.
But this bit of nerd-pleasing in-jokery stirred a nostalgia I didn't even know I felt. I had forgotten this theme, forgotten I'd even forgotten this theme, until it roared out of the depths of CGI'd space to bring back memories of the middle school gym where I first saw the old BBC shows. (Upon reflection, I went to some pretty weird-ass middle schools.) I realized how much of my early adolescence, that time where we choose the subcultural affinities that will define us, for better or worse, for the rest of our days, was played to an ambient soundtrack of the BBC's futurist electropop. I tip my hat to you masters of Maida Vale, you kings of tweedy sci-fi shlock.
(Yet I just learned yesterday morning that said theme was written by - oh dear god - one of the Eagles. I'm happy for Bernie Leadon, though. At least his work with the Hitchhiker's franchise turned out better than his on-screen debut. Here's a free piece of advice for all budding rock stars: If you decide to hire the Hell's Angels for your concert security, and if you decide to pay them in cocaine, DO NOT PAY THEM UNTIL AFTER THE SHOW. You'll thank me for these words of wisdom later.)
It doesn't speak well of the new movie that all its high points are like that, big-budget realizations of a twenty-five-year-old geek ur-text. The movie is at its best when it restages the same old Hitchhiker's scenes; departures from that original, especially a disastrously staged sequence on the Vogon homeworld, are usually mistakes. I realize it's especially hard to identify an "original" with this story, which has warped through more permutations than the Heart of Gold. For all I know the Vogsphere stuff was penned by Adams for the special Hitchhiker's Guide kineoscope adaptation, visible only on an old hand-cranked Victorian peepshow machine in the sub-basement of the V&A. But it seems new, and it unquestionably doesn't work.
The movie's greatest failing is its brutal narrative economy. The director is in such a rush to convey information that he forgets to make any of it amusing: even the Guide entries lose much of their droll wit, try as Stephen Fry might. But the relentless plotplotplotplotplot pacing makes absolutely no sense in light of the movie's many narrative distractions, especially the sequence on Vogsphere and a long, even more pointless scene with John Malkovich as Humma Kavula or Hava Nagila or something - basically an ecclesiastical Al Gore to Sam Rockwell's all too Bushlike Zaphod Beeblebrox. Confused politics aside, these interludes are wholly superfluous, mere obstacles to getting the characters back into vintage Hitchhiker's territory, and I had the same reaction to all of them: this was time that could have been funny.
Not that it necessarily would have been. The casting isn't bad; even Rockwell could have reined in his scenery-chewing performance, I'm sure, if they'd had a crew of handlers standing by just off-camera with electric cattle prods at the ready. Some of the cast does a whole lot with nothing and some just stay at the level of what the script and direction give them. The best treat is, again, another exhumation of the BBC television series when Simon Jones, the old Arthur Dent, turns up to play a homicidal but extremely courteous answering machine message. His scene works because he, better than anyone else in this film, knows how to play the deadpan delivery that drives Douglas Adams's humor. It's sorely missed in the rest of the movie, which is too frantic by far.
On the other hand, Jones's brief appearance also suggests that Martin Freeman (of the original The Office) is in some ways better suited to play Arthur. There is something a bit too polished, too BBC about Simon Jones, as if nobody that composed could possibly be about to lose his house, his dream girl, or his planet. Actually, Jones has just about the level of sang-froid one would expect of a thermonuclear-empowered answering service. This isn't to say Freeman's Arthur is better than Jones's, but I'd place any shortcomings squarely on the scripting and direction, not the ability of the actors.
Freeman also has a tougher job than Jones as he is, of the movie's four principals, the only English actor and thus in some ways the most responsible for conveying the Adams wit. Everyone else has been Americanized, resulting in a sort of transatlantic schizophrenia. The economies of scale are pure Hollywood but the movie intermittently tries to remind us that it's English, mostly through a sort of overcompensating Englishness (Anglité?): the plummy Stephen Fry narration, the Vogon designs that look a lot like they're lifted from Martin Rowson (it's the high noses), the satire on bureaucracy that looks a lot like it's lifted from Brazil. That's part of the original too, of course, whichever original you care to choose, and so it predates Terry Gilliam's masterpiece, although it hasn't aged nearly as well; after a quarter-century of Thatchers and Reagans, and Third Ways and New Labours, there isn't anything even mildly subversive about railing against civil servants anymore.
In fact, the Bushian direction of Zaphod and the increased screen-time for the soft target of Vogon bureaucracy combine to provide, at moments, an oddly paleoconservative tilt to the movie - and it's no coincidence that they've toned down all the "God is dead" bits of the original Guide entries, right? Anything that might tweak or challenge the currently dominant American political or religious mode is gone, leaving only some of the most scathing social satire of the James Callaghan government.
See, I'm not one of the fanboy purists - some of the twenty-five-year-old comedy I can do without.