04 May, 2005

Not-so-short movie review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I am a fan of Douglas Adams' trilogy, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I remember my father listening to the radio play when I was young, and I remember thinking that it was very funny. Later, as an adult, I stumbled across the books and tried reading it again, and I was struck by how brilliant the trilogy is. I later described it as "very profound, in a non-profound sort of way, if you get my meaning." More on this in a moment.

Notice that unlike most mentions of the book, I didn't put the word "trilogy" in quotes, because I am not a fan of the fourth or fifth books. In fact, I disliked the fourth book so much that I have never read the fifth book, and I never plan to. I have also read one of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently books (The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul). I disliked it, as well.

I never really understood why. I knew that Douglas Adams had changed his writing style, and that bothered me. However, I couldn't put it into words at the time. Having watched the recent film adaptation, I think I can do so now.

Slide back a few years: Luc Besson's film The Fifth Element was supposed to prove that the French could do sci-fi action blockbusters just as well as the Americans could. There was a lot of talk at the time that the film was a new Star Wars: addressing deep questions in a way that ordinary people could understand. (As God is my witness, I am not making this up. The stars of the film repeated this line in several interviews, as did Luc Besson himself, I think.)

Now, I enjoyed The Fifth Element a great deal (I've watched it at least four times). But it was a flop, and for a good reason: it tried so hard to be significant, that it inadvertently ended up having no significance at all.

Fast forward: I've read that Douglas Adams conceived the story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a cross between Dr. Who and Monty Python, both of them British shows that he had worked on — the first science fiction, the second comedy.

Adams was an atheist, and he wasn't interested in giving any particular profound "meaning" to this story. He makes fun of science, of religion, and even of literature; he makes fun of academics, of bureacrats, and even of his heroes. He makes fun of pretty much everything. Indeed, The Hitchhiker's trilogy tries so hard to be meaningless, that it inadvertently ended up having meaning. Remember my remark above: the books are rather profound, in a non-profound sort of way. They're not life-altering, but they are rather thought-provoking in ways that I don't think Douglas Adams ever intended them to be.

Fast forward again to the Dirk Gently books, to the fourth book in the Hitchhiker's "trilogy", and to this movie. Things have changed. Adams seems to have caught some sort of secular religion where his books had to have some sort of meaning, or some lesson for the reader. Above all, romance: Arthur Dent has to fall in love (Adams uses rather more earthy language than "love", as if that makes it any less ridiculous). This simply doesn't work with Adams' style, and the result is that his later work tries so hard to be meaningful, that it inadvertently ends up being meaningless.

That's effectively my explanation for everything that's wrong with the new film. Almost all of the reviews say that the film "captures the spirit of the books" or something like that. This is what we call damning with faint praise. Look: the books were headlong, careening, happy-go-lucky dashes about an imaginary galaxy that was insane and meaningless (as the book never failed to remind you). You don't notice that there isn't much of a plot, because they're not trying to pretend that they have one. The film tries so hard to have a plot, that most reviewers criticize it for having none worth discussing.

Finally, the coup de grace: a Fifth Element moment. Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the Galaxy, is acclaimed by what looks like a gaggle of excited Japanese schoolgirls. Hmmmm... reminds me of Ruby Rhod, and in this case The Fifth Element did it with far more wit. When I saw that, I lost all hope for a decent resolution.

On the positive side, this is actually one of the few science-fiction films which I think women might enjoy more than I did. I will elaborate only enough to say "point of view gun". You have been warned. :-)

I'm sorry to write such a harsh review. I didn't hate it that much, and I will probably watch the film again in the near future. Still, I was sufficiently annoyed that I wish they had closed the film by repeating what Adams' trilogy claimed was God's final message to his creation: "We apologize for the inconvenience."

1 comment:

Alessandra said...

Hi, I haven't seen the movie, don't know if I will, because I had the same experience you did with the books, i.e., the first 3 really good, the 4th already wanes, and I didn't read anything other than that.

I had had a feeling that no one (or almost no one) would be able to pull off making a good film out of the Trilogy or any of the books. It is one challenging filmmaking project. So I was kind of in that "just wait until it gets shown on TV and confirm what a lame adaptation they did" kind of mood. :-)

btw, your review wasn't harsh at all, it sounded quite perceptive.

On the other hand, I went to see a German/Turkish film (Head On) that deserves some harsh reviewing in some respects, I need to get around to it on my blog :-)

And another important interview coming up today... I'm trying not to get all nerve-wrecked about it... anticipation...