Sci-Fi Spotlight: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Quick, don't think.

Quick, don’t think.

Directed by: Garth Jennings
Run Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: April 29, 2005

Don’t panic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is here to help you out as you traverse the ever-expanding galaxy. Need to know what to avoid when dealing with Vogon’s? How about the uses of the Babel fish? Oh, and always remember to bring a towel, the most useful object in the universe.

By making the film more scientific than most comedies, Hitchhiker’s runs the risk of alienating viewers only seeking cheap laughs. Then, many laughs are coincided with facts about the universe or theories only people with an understanding of how the universe works would get or understand. Not saying that you have to be an astrophysicist to get the jokes, but if you don’t enjoy science, then the Improbability Drive is most likely lost on you.

Fortunately, for me, this movie hits many of the right notes. I love science and all that the universe lends to discussion. Why are we here? How did we get here? Is there a purpose for our existence? These are actually all questions that this film answers in a way that serves the plot.

We start off on this adventure when Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is told by his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that the world is ending. Oh, and Dent’s house is about to be demolished. But that is small potatoes compared to the peril the earth is about to face. Ford gives Arthur his first lesson in hitchhiking. Bring a towel. And on that note, Ford’s thumb is thrusted towards the sky and they are deposited into a Vogon spaceship, a species that are as bureaucratic as Gordon Gecko.

But I’m not here to run through the plot of the story, I’m here to talk about the science of the story. Arthur and Ford’s excursion on the ship ends with them being dumped into space, giving them an astronomically small chance of being saved in the 30 seconds or so they are left in the great vacuum of space. Good news for our protagonists, they are saved and we are able continue without an untimely death.

It is on that spaceship that saves their lives that so much good stuff happens. There’s Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), the manically depressed robot who can’t help but be a downer. Usually, the robot servant in a movie does not have emotions or feelings, but Marvin is a GPP. Genuine People Personality. I guess the person who programmed Marvin did not have a sunny disposition on life. Then there are the ship’s sighing doors. Not the normal swoosh or click that those typical space doors make. No. These doors open as if they are being hassled with the inconvenience. The only thing happy about this ship is the navigation program, who is cheerfully upbeat, even in the face of the most dangerous of situations. All of these quirks to the ship add to the appeal of the film. It doesn’t feel ordinary to us, but fits right in to everything else.

Another science fiction aspect that I find fascinating in this film is the President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). The film makes light of the fact that Beeblebrox won, but the idea that there is a face of the galaxy is pretty neat. Like an intergalactic community got together and voted on a President. We have a hard time voting in our country. Imagine having a President of Earth? We are a long way of from that happening, which is why a President of the Galaxy is so bizarre to me.

But let’s focus on earth for a bit, a planet devoid of dolphins, the second smartest species on the planet, because they mysteriously disappeared (they left because they knew destruction was coming. duh). Humans, the third smartest species on the planet, had no idea the earth was going to be destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. Though, according to the Vogons, they should not be surprised. A notice was posted fifteen years ago at the Alpa Centuri headquarters. If only humans had a way of actually traveling into space and not just to the moon . . .

The smartest species on the planet happened to be mice. They are the creators. Yes, those little rodents. The interplay between Arthur and the mice is priceless. And what makes this all work is the idea that we know nothing. By having our protagonists look for “the answer,” us, as the viewer, are left to look at a scenario of the universe that we quite frankly can’t dismiss as being untrue. Let me say that again. We can’t dismiss the logical scenario of mice creating earth as a laboratory to further their scientific findings.

The only aspect that this movie falters in is with the directing. Garth Jennings is not a household name. His only two feature length directing credits are this and Son of Rambow. He failed to indulge with a little flavor and pizzazz. This is the universe, which is larger than our minds can conceive of and is filled with places and concepts that we may never ever dream up, but his direction made it seem like their were actual limitations to space, which is actually quite upsetting when you think about it.

It was a fairly straightforward job by Jennings is what I’m saying. This film could have used, let’s say, Edgar Wright to spark some life into the film. His style is perfect for the rambling scenes and quick interjections that the film follows from the book. However, Jennings treats this material conservatively and does not dare risk to interject some creativity. He relies on the plot and dialogue for that.

Due to the directing, the film drags at times. The quick, stylistic cuts of Wright would help lift some scenes from the mundane to the chic, not to mention the film as a whole. Take for example when the Improbability Drive is used and the ship and everyone inside is turned into yarn:

Now, the scene works because of the concept of the Improbability Drive, the wittiness of Sam Rockwell, and the impending switch to normality, but it is fairly ordinary in style. Quicker cuts or better revealing shots would have made the scene fresher and more enjoyable. Also, the scene on Vogsphere where thinking is not allowed is a missed opportunity for some creativity. He hit all the beats you would expect from that scene. But on a planet where thinking leads to injury, the unexpected would seem to make more sense.

On the whole though, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an enjoyable film, packed with many fun and intelligent scientific conversations. What the film lacks in charisma, it makes up for in chemistry as all the actors play off of one another so well, that the simple direction can’t slow it down. For someone who loves science and science fiction, the dialogue is what counts the most and makes Hitchhicker’s a worthwhile viewing. Remember, don’t panic, and always bring a towel.


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