Only Human

Film still for Only Human

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy makes the destruction of the Earth its cue for whimsical, high-fidelity, SF comedy. But is it funny, asks Andrew Osmond.

The new film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, originally created by the late comedy writer Douglas Adams as a groundbreaking radio show, a five-book 'trilogy' and a BBC television serial, opens not in outer space but underwater. We see footage of dolphins - "a brainier species than man," as Stephen Fry's voiceover tells us with typical jovial authority - performing at a water park, then zooming into the heavens to escape the impending destruction of the world. A little later, just before the Earth is vap-ourised by a race of indifferent bovine bureaucrats called the Vogons (who want to clear the way for an interstellar bypass), we glimpse a newspaper blown in the wind, bearing the headline "Dolphins Vanish".

It's a pleasingly surreal, pointedly off-centre herald of the apocalypse - off-centre, at least, for anyone who thinks Homo sapiens should be at the centre of anything, an assumption that the anti-humanist environmentalist Adams was always keen to undercut. (In a now-dated line from earlier versions of the work, Adams describes humans as ape-descended life-forms that "are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea".) But then it's quickly obvious that Hitchhiker is no standard apocalypse film, for the Earth is blown to bits within the first ten minutes. Our cosmic bearings gone, we're left to follow the picaresque space adventures of baffled hero Arthur Dent, seemingly the last Earthling alive, played gormlessly in pyjamas and dressing gown by The Office's Martin Freeman.

The displacement of humanity, and the crumbling of its grandiose illusions, lie at the heart of much literary science fiction, and especially of such apocalyptic visions as H.G. Wells' novel War of the Worlds (1898). If Wells' Martians fail to blow up Earth as the Vogons do, they at least empty much of it of human beings, leaving room in Wells' prose for hypnotic, slightly trippy visions of sweet-tasting air and red weeds swathing a deserted London. By going a stage further and removing the whole planet, Adams exploits this liberation to positively merry ends. This is comedy, after all, so when the Vogon spaceships arrive in the heavens and the crowds start fleeing in terror, the film-makers present the spectacle as if it were a carnival. This is partly to prevent us taking the end of the world at all seriously, but there's also a misanthropic hint (more prominent in Wells) that the virtual extinction of the human species may be necessary to make the survivors start thinking clearly.

There's a clear contempt here for mass humanity, with shots of panicking cities sardonically intercut with sheep running haplessly over a field. It's only when the Earth is blown away that the film can introduce a new, more playful measure to replace man, namely the non-religious Book that is the Guide of the title, with the words "Don't Panic" written in large friendly letters on the cover. The Book is voiced by Stephen Fry (a worthy substitute for the late Peter Jones, who voiced the radio and television Hitchhiker), and its explanation of each new oddity in the Adams cosmos is illustrated with simple zippy animations, whose functionality only makes them funnier and more irreverent.

As a film, Hitchhiker may well suit its slot in the film release calendar as a gentle pre-emptive raspberry to Steven Spielberg's forthcoming remake of War of the Worlds, which is unlikely to keep the anti-humanist heft of Wells' original. At the same time Hitchhiker has none of the noisy obnoxiousness of Tim Burton's mischievous Mars Attacks! (1996), which played a counter-programming role in the year of Independence Day. Instead, Hitchhiker keeps Adams' emphasis on conceptual absurdities. There's humour about form-filling bureaucracy and the British ability to queue. (Adams' visions of an elephantine bureaucracy were taken up by former Python Terry Gilliam in Brazil, 1985.) But there's also a central search for the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything (the answer being 42), and a whimsical, absurdist wit that's heavily indebted to Monty Python, but with much less violence, despite the destruction of Earth.

The resulting film is intermittently funny and/or charming and sometimes genuinely strange. Certainly, audiences whose only experience of SF comedy is Mars Attacks! or Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (1997) may well find Hitchhiker fresh and surprising, though the early Men in Black scenes share Hitchhiker's emphasis on cosmic disorientation - they take the viewpoint of Will Smith's baffled hero as he enters an alternative world where Sylvester Stallone is an alien and the FBI's main sources of information are supermarket tabloids. This is what science-fiction critics call the conceptual breakthrough, the discovery that the universe is terrifyingly or hilariously different from how normal humans see it.

"Normal" in this context traditionally excludes mad scientists, secret agents - Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black - and lunatics like the criminally insane non-hero played by Bruce Willis in Gilliam's 1995 Twelve Monkeys. (The latter's nightmarish treatment of the theme has a couple of clear nods to Hitchhiker.) In Hitchhiker itself, the per son who knows the earthshattering truth is Arthur's friend Ford Prefect (played in low-key fashion by US hip-hop star Mos Def), who famously is revealed to be from an alien galaxy, "not from Guildford after all".

Yet seeing Hitchhiker as an expensive movie will always feel odd to viewers who grew up with the work in other media. Bear in mind that the radio series became a near-instant multimedia franchise shortly after it began. Comparisons to the original are the inevitable lament of old-time fans, for whom no new version could satisfy expectations. Writer Karey Kirkpatrick, who with Austin Powers director Jay Roach (a producer on the film) polished draft Hitchhiker film scripts that Adams had worked up over the years, quotes a nameless Hollywood executive who warned, "We aren't going to make a $90 million cult movie," that is, one that appeals only to Adams' devotees. The same could be said, however, for any of the effects-heavy fantasy adaptations now in vogue, from X-Men to Return of the King.

But what if the quirks that secured Hitchhiker's cult status are the very qualities which made it a hit in the first place? That seems to be what Kirkpatrick and first-time director Garth Jennings (co-founder of the music-video and commercial partnership Hammer & Tongs) feel. They've turned out a highly reverential movie, keeping intact a large proportion of Adams' gags, speeches and one-liners. Kirkpatrick even stresses that the 'new' scenes, an extremely mixed bag, are derived from drafts Adams wrote before his death in 2001.

Such fidelity is to be expected. One reason why Hitchhiker is a more complex property than most fantasy franchises, is that, while it sprawls across various media, Adams' voice remains at the heart of the enterprise. To keep things straight: the first Hitchhiker radio series was broadcast in 1978, the first book appeared a year later and a television serial followed in 1981. Fans tend to prefer whichever format first led them into the Adams cosmos, although purists prefer the radio, and the biggest impact worldwide was made by the books. The film is based on the first book, which was embellished from the first four episodes of the radio show.

Strictly speaking, Adams was never the sole author. Even when writing the original radio series, he was simultaneously working on a Tom Baker Doctor Who story and had to call in John Lloyd (who later progressed to Not the Nine O'Clock News and Blackadder) to co-write the last two episodes. But there's no doubt that, even posthumously, Hitchhiker will always be 'owned' by Adams, who could tinker endlessly with the multi-choice storyline but never gave it the kind of update-cum-reinvention that Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, The Second Coming) is now giving the more mutable Doctor Who. For all its rearrangements and interpolations, the film is tied to what 'cult' viewers will expect, with the new bits and pieces drawing attention to how literally other scenes have been transcribed.

The traditional scenes play enjoyably enough. All the main characters are here, including the iconic Marvin the Paranoid Android, well voiced by Alan Rickman, who functions as an electric Eeyore, moaning on cue about each new wonder. Sam Rockwell is energetic but one-note as brainless galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox while his second head seems there mainly for the fans (a whim on radio, it caused notorious problems on television). The planet-destroying Vogons still torture prisoners with their hideous poetry, though Arthur's under-the-gun appreciation now plays less like a sketch for the Cambridge Footlights (the setting in which Adams started writing comedy). Here Martin Freeman's Arthur shyly concedes that he doesn't understand all the words, while his predecessor, Simon Jones, plainly remembers his Eng. Lit. crib notes, bluffing about how the Vogons' execrable verse "sublimates this, transcends that and comes to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other."

We also get Adams' well-loved rationalisations of bog-standard science fiction, like the instantly translating Babel Fish (stick one in your ear to understand any alien language) and the Infinite Improbability Drive, which feeds on the implausibilities of the characters' space adventures and at one point creates a doomed sperm whale (voiced by Bill Bailey), whose existential vignette is as charming on film as in other media. All this detail means new audiences get the authentic flavour of Adams' work, but raises qualms about whether this kind of adaptation is any more than recycling for new audiences. When it comes to the presentation, some moments offer interesting angles on the material. The shame is that they're few and far between, glimpsed among literal recaps of the original and wodges of lamer new material (such as a long and pointless sequence involving John Malkovich as an alternative presidential candidate who creeps about like a centipede on multiple metal legs).

A striking individual moment comes as the Vogons surround Earth, and the perspective pulls out in a series of sharp, spiky cuts to show a web of giant spaceships covering the planet. It's no stunning effect, but it briefly takes the film into the twilight zone of weird fantasy sometimes visited by Terry Gilliam (see 1981's Time Bandits) and script­ writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). There's also a wonderful gag towards the end, when Arthur encounters a melancholic Bill Nighy, the best turn in the film, who plays a planet designer called Slartibartfast and invites Arthur to tour his facilities. The journey starts with a juddering ghost-train affair on what looks like a cut-price BBC sci-fi set circa 1978, then opens into a budget-blowing CG space vista.

The scene is a joke on expectations that reconciles modern effects cinema with the wobbly-set aesthetic treasured by fans of vintage British television fantasy. Given that Adams worked on Doctor Who as a writer and script editor, it's fitting that Russell T. Davies does something similar in the first part of his update of that series, where a cheesy man-eating wheelie-bin - a sketch-show version of a Doctor Who monster - is similarly augmented by CGI. Doctor Who is recalled in one of the funniest new Hitchhiker scenes, explaining why the bureaucratic Vogons are devoid of creative thought. Our heroes run across a sandy alien landscape that's actually a South Wales quarry, an archetypal backdrop for British fantasy. Every time they accidentally think about something, a stick-creature springs up from the sand and slaps them painfully in the face. The scene is shot for the big screen, but the content is vintage British television, invoking Python more than Star Trek.

In both its presentation and content - which amounts to a silly joke about the process of thinking - the scene exemplifies the blend of whimsy and sceptical (rather than satirical) self-awareness that characterises Hitchhiker, along with much of Doctor Who. To call this mix 'British' would be to ignore how much it's travelled in recent years. Strip Buffy the Vampire Slayer of its California trappings and one finds the same principles lying beneath. Buffy, though, could successfully have a girl at its centre, while the earlier versions of Hitchhiker traditionally present the universe as an all-boys' club, something not quite covered up in the new version.

Predictably, the film adds a faltering, Richard Curtis-type romance between Arthur and fellow galactic hitchhiker Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), who is established as an almost-girlfriend before becoming the last female human in the universe. In former versions, Trillian was the equivalent of the token girl in Monty Python sketches - the first radio series ending with her being casually gobbled up by a ravening space monster. That scene is reworked in the film to allow Arthur a clumsily heroic rescue bid. There's nothing wrong with that, and Freeman and Deschanel (who plays Trillian as the kind of kooky genius who would dress as a bearded Charles Darwin for a fancy-dress party, complete with toy beagle - a touch Adams would have loved) make a sweeter couple than the Hugh Grant screen pairings that inspired it.

If the film finally turns the hunt for the Ultimate Question... into an audience-friendly message that all you need is love (in contrast to the sour bathos of the original), then at least the message is delivered with due cosmic humility by Freeman, strapped to a chair and facing lobotomy from the Earth's secret rulers. But one can't shake the feeling that, at the end of the world, this sweet-natured romantic tinkering isn't what the rather-heartless Hitchhiker is about. After all, one of the best-known lines is the oft-repeated refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android: "Life? Don't talk to me about life."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012