Mere seconds before the Earth is to be demolished by an alien construction crew, journeyman Arthur Dent is swept off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher penning a new edition of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
My initial knee-jerk reaction to having to watch 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' was not one of glee. My prior knowledge of Douglas Adams' long-running, much-beloved cult series of books had led me to believe it was a completely provincial affair. Like other highly insular, resolutely British phenomenons like 'Dr. Who,' I imagined that the the crazy world Adams created in the 'Hitchhiker' series (complete with its own invented vernacular and interlocking storylines) could only be appreciated by those with a primer the size of an encyclopedia -- either you get it, or you don't.
But lo and behold, miracles do happen, and illumination can come from the most unlikely of places (which happened to be one of the key themes of Adams' books). So here I am, delighted to be saying that I quite liked this crazy movie -- because if you strip away all of Adams' off-the-wall lingo, sci-fi silliness and very mixed metaphors, 'Hictchhiker's Guide' is really just a sweet story of an everyday chap trying to make sense of his world. How much more universal can you get?
I'll do my best to try to explain the plot. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, from the British 'Office') is having a really bad morning. After waking up to his usual cup of coffee, he's whisked away seconds before the Earth is destroyed to make way for a new intergalactic superhighway. With the help of tour guide Ford Prefect (Mos Def) and a handy little book labeled, "Don't Panic!", Arthur will embark on the adventure of a lifetime to try to save the Earth. Along the way, he'll meet some crazy characters, including the creator of the universe (Sam Rockwell, looking a lot like Dave Stewart of Eurythmics), a rather large-headed robot named Marvin (Warwick Davis, voiced by Alan Rickman) and the reincarnation of the love of his life, Trish 'Trillian' McMillan (Zooey Dechanel), whose heart was stolen away by another man. After being shot at, squashed, whacked, insulted, read poetry to, had a fish stuck in his ear, had his brain sawed out by mice and told the answer to the "Ultimate Question," Arthur is set to become the most unlikely action hero in the history of the universe. But even if Arthur saves the Earth and wins back the woman he loves, this once-in-a-lifetime adventure could only just be beginning.
There are two ways to look at 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' One is as a fairly insane, haphazardly-plotted exercise in nonsensical dialogue, with actors walking around in funny costumes doing slapstick-styled parodies of other sci-fi movies. The other is to read between the lines to discover how Adams uses fantasy, allusion and admittedly outlandish metaphor to ask challenging questions about man's place in the universe. Choose the latter, and the film is really quite rewarding.
In many ways, 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is surprisingly accessible. Dent is a highly-relatable character, and it is ultimately his very average-ness that makes him so courageous (especially as played by the charming Freeman). The narrative is also quite linear, despite the cheeky dialogue and frequent conceptual detours, particularly a series of animated "bridge sequences" designed to help the audience quickly adapt to Adams' complex world. These moves infuriated some Adams' diehards, but the film would have been incomprehensible otherwise. And to the filmmakers' great credit, the fact that Adams had a very particular worldview (most notably being a proponent of Darwinism) is not watered down. Despite being a studio film, 'Hitchhiker's' is quite confrontational towards many generally accepted philosophies and religious beliefs. In this way, it's almost downright subversive.
It is unfortunate, if sadly inevitable, that the film version of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' thus continues to be dismissed by many fans of the series. It seems impossible that the book could ever have been turned into a single 113-minute film and still pleased Adams' legion of admirers -- to the faithful, the original stories are sacred texts, and even the slightest deviation from the source material considered blasphemy. Which is, of course, understandable. But for the uninitiated like me, I will say this about 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' Before, the phrase "So long, and thanks for all the fish!" made me cringe. Now, it makes me smile.
I've struggled with how to approach my critique of this film's picture quality. 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is another one of those transfers that has been digitally scrubbed to the extreme, I suppose in an effort to make the picture look futuristic. Unfortunately, not unlike a bad skin rash, I continue to have a negative reaction to transfers that appear to be so post-processed that they look more like cell phone screensavers than they do motion pictures. Yet if this was the intent of the filmmakers (and I see no reason to believe the telecine for 'Hitchhiker's' wasn't supervised by the film's director and/or director of photography as Director's Guild of America rules require), then my criticisms in this area have to fall under personal bias, not technical quality. Still, I just didn't enjoy this Blu-ray presentation very much.
Disney delivers the raw specs, with a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that has no obvious flaws. The source material is pristine, with no dirt, speckles or the like. Blacks hold firm, and despite all the digital tweaking detail is about as good as is possible -- I could see every pore on Mos Def's face in his close-ups, and even the animated segments have that nice high-def look.
The problem is blown-out whites and noise. A good deal of 'Hitchhiker's production design uses stark white as its primary color, so I suspect detail would have been superior had the grayscale not been whacked to oblivion. Film grain is also exacerbated, and is mixed with video noise, especially in high-contrast sequences. Colors aren't helped much, either. It's like a tug of war -- hues appear pumped up, yet conversely flattened out by the harsh push of the image. This results in pretty dismal fleshtones, and I feel sorry for the poor actors, all of whom now appear to have bad skin. Even the usually luminous Zooey Dechanel looks splotchy.
While my personal preference would be to give this transfer three stars (out of five), my charitable side says three and a half. The look of the film may not be my cup of tea, but if it's what the filmmakers were going for, then far be it for me to say anything but, "So long, and thanks for the fish!"
The audio on this one is quite impressive. 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' gets the uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround treatment at 48kHz/16-bit. The film has zippy sound design, with clever little aural effects and other gizmos that always keep the proceedings lively.
'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is a "futuristic" movie, yet it has a feel that is often as quaint and low-key as an intimate BBC chamber drama. Sometimes chintzy on purpose, this is talky sci-fi, with frequent narration and almost non-stop dialogue. Speech always sounds great, with no volume tweaking required and even the more stylized dialogue discernible. The score by Joby Talbot is also fun and spirited, and fills the rears nicely when required. Dynamic range is also very good, with deep low bass and smooth frequency response across the board. Surrounds are often active, with discrete effects nicely directed to all channels. I wouldn't say a seamless "wall of sound" is created, but part of the fun of 'Hitchhiker's' is that it often calls attention to itself, and its soundtrack is no different.
I must say, I've been really impressed with how Disney has stepped up its support for extras on its recent Blu-ray releases. The studio's initial titles were pretty bare bones, but more recent fare -- including 'Chicago,' 'The Guardian' and now 'Hitchhiker's' -- have been quite flush with supplements. Though these Blu-ray releases have still not ported over every supplemental feature included on their standard-def counterparts, the studio is definitely moving in the right direction. Also commendable is the fact that all of the video-based extras for 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' are presented here in full 1080p video.
Most of the included supplements have a tone as cheeky as the movie they support. Fans of Douglas Adams' dense storylines may be surprised that there are only three Deleted Scenes here. And in fact, each of the three "scenes" are actually extensions of existing sequences -- "Earth: Mostly Harmless," "We're Going to Win" and "Impossible Forces." Funny enough, the most throwaway of the three, "Impossible Forces," is the best, featuring the Zaphod Vice President (Anna Chancellor) professing her love for Sam Rockwell after Arthur's home on Earth is restored.
The "Really Deleted Scenes" are a couple of mock segments done in the same tongue-in-cheek manner as the film. "Do Panic" is like an improv showdown between Martin Freeman, Mos Def and Rockwell, while "Arthur Escapes" features Freeman rescuing a Daschund. There is also an "Additional Guide Entry," which is a stand-alone deleted sequence straight from Adams' text. Atheists will love this one, as it's an amusing, irrefutably logical argument that God does not exist.
With little in the way of genuine making-of footage, nor any featurettes on the film's effects, fans will have to turn to the two audio commentaries for sustenance. Director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith join actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy for a lively, jovial and sometimes rollicking chat. This track is a lot of fun, with the participants sharing plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and background about the shoot. It can get a bit too fluffy at times, but never less than amusing, including some lighthearted digs at co-stars Def and John Malkovich, and some fun color on the various last-minute fudges and spontaneous quick-fixes made to get the film completed on time and on budget.
Even more of a must for Adams disciples is the second commentary track with two of the legendary author's long-time collaborators. Robbie Stamp executive-produced the adaptation, while Sean Solle worked with Adams throughout his life. Both make it clear that before his death, it was actually Adams who suggested and approved many of the considerable narrative changes made for the film, from expanding the Dent-Trillian relationship to changes in the look and appearance of key characters. Also fascinating is that Adams' love of Darwinism led him to see the 'Hitchhiker's' series as an ever-evolving story, one never meant to have a definitive telling. Such never-before-told details make this an essential commentary, and if nothing else should help alleviate criticism against the film as being damaging or disrespectful to Adams' work.
There are, however, a few disappointments here. Not only is there no Theatrical Trailer included for the film, but there was a 30-minute making-of featurette on the standard-def DVD release that is also absent. It was a nice intro to the basic of the film and the franchise, and its presence is missed. I also enjoyed the goofy "Sing-Along" on the original DVD, which also didn't make the jump to Blu-ray.
Despite my admittedly unfounded negative preconceptions, I heartily enjoyed 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' -- enough so that I may even go out and finally read one of Douglas Adams' books. And while some diehard fans of Adams' novels have dismissed the movie as being unfaithful to its source material, this Blu-ray release is worth considering. I had issues with the overly-artificial veneer of the transfer, but the soundtrack is quite good, as are the extras. This one is definitely worth a rental for the curious.