Hitchhiker’s disappointment


The wife and I caught the new film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy last night, and I regret to report that the film never really caught on, for me. I hope I can appease certain friends of mine by humbly bowing low and covering my head in ashes and saying I probably just don’t “get” the series, but I would be relieved beyond measure if it turned out that a fair number of them thought the film didn’t “get” the series either.

Just for the record, I have only read the first book in the series, and that was over a dozen years ago — I strongly associate it with the “Hoy House” days, for those who know what that means. (And for those who don’t: In April ’91, I moved out of my parents’ place, and until August ’92 I lived with an ever-expanding number of friends in a house on Hoy Street, which came to be known as “the Hoy House”. We were all sci-fi buffs; this was when I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was just more than half-way through its run at this point, and I also got around to reading the original Hitchhiker’s Guide — but not its sequels.)

Anyway. Coming home from the theatre last night, I remarked to my wife that it has been 21 years since Ghostbusters, and if I’m not mistaken, that is generally considered the first “big-budget special-effects comedy” — and I think this is a very, very difficult genre to do well. The tens of millions of dollars spent on all the major special effects builds certain expectations that your typical light, fluffy comedy can’t meet; and if the filmmakers aren’t careful, the effects can begin to seem like an awful lot of work for a few quick laughs. To a certain extent, comedy and humour are all about having a sense of proportion — and unless the filmmakers know what they’re doing, the very act of making such an enormous, expensive film tends to suggest a lack thereof.

Let’s put it this way. The lumpy, grotesque, bureaucratic Vogons reminded me of Terry Gilliam creations, and not in a good way; and the reunion of Sam Rockwell (as Zaphod Beeblebrox) and Alan Rickman (as the voice of Marvin) reminded me of Galaxy Quest, which I thought was a much better spoof of sci-fi and its fans.

And the casting seemed strangely off to me. Take Zooey Deschanel, who I have loved and adored ever since she played the influential big sister in Almost Famous (2000) — heck, she’s the only reason I even remember The New Guy (2002). As much as I like her, I am not sure that she was the right choice to play Trillian; her tone doesn’t quite match the film’s, and there is a scene in which she sheds a tear that just cried out for empathy, yet there was nothing else in the rest of this film that really encouraged any empathizing. (I also got a bit annoyed by the way she kept saying “Sector Zee-Zee-Nine” instead of “Sector Zed-Zed-Nine” — what with this and the casting of Rockwell as Zaphod and Mos Def as Ford Prefect, the story has definitely been Americanized.)

On the bright side, I absolutely loved every scene that Bill Nighy was in. He was great in Shaun of the Dead (2004), he was the best thing in Love Actually (2003), and he was quite possibly the best thing here, too. I must check out more of his films.

And the animated sequence was exceedingly cute, too.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Anonymous

    As a lone fan of the Spielberg epic “1941″, I take exception to your comment that Ghostbusters was the first big-budget spfx comedy. Most of the negative reviews that film got was the lashing against its then astronomical budget, which is not so out-of-control today…

    –Nick

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14715376140228118442 Jeffrey Overstreet

    >>The lumpy, grotesque, bureaucratic Vogons reminded me of Terry Gilliam creations, and not in a good way

    Really? They reminded me even more of the Ugnauts in “The Fifth Element.” It was refreshing to see non-digital aliens again. I’ve always loved the tangible detail of creatures like those in “The Dark Crystal,” and these were similarly extraordinary.

    >> the reunion of Sam Rockwell (as Zaphod Beeblebrox) and Alan Rickman (as the voice of Marvin) reminded me of Galaxy Quest

    Yeah, but I’ll welcome ANY reunion of these two. Rockwell is the highlight of the film.

    >> …which I thought was a much better spoof of sci-fi and its fans.

    I agree, although “Hitchhiker” has a lot more on its mind than just spoofing sci-fi. It spoofs, if you will, life, the universe, and everything.

    Having said all of that, I look forward to seeing it again to decide what I think of the film. I ranted in my own blog about why I can’t do that yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    As a lone fan of the Spielberg epic “1941″, I take exception to your comment that Ghostbusters was the first big-budget spfx comedy.

    Ah, right. Never seen that one. I probably should, though, at some point. I think that and The Sugarland Express (1974) are the only Spielberg films I have not yet seen.

    Most of the negative reviews that film got was the lashing against its then astronomical budget, which is not so out-of-control today…

    Wow, yeah, BoxOfficeMojo says it cost $35 million in 1979, which was about the same it cost to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture that same year; one year later, the infamous flop Heaven’s Gate was made for only slightly more, $40 million. And I believe I have heard both ST:TMP and HG described as the most expensive movies ever made, at the time of their making.

    For comparison’s sake, The Empire Strikes Back cost only $18 million in 1980, and Return of the Jedi cost $32.5 million in 1983.

    Figures for The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are not available, but it seems possible Spielberg did not spend so much on a single movie again until Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which cost $48 million in 1989.

    Really? They reminded me even more of the Ugnauts in “The Fifth Element.”

    Don’t remember those.

    It was refreshing to see non-digital aliens again. I’ve always loved the tangible detail of creatures like those in “The Dark Crystal,” and these were similarly extraordinary.

    A fitting comparison, considering these creatures came out of the Henson puppet shop!

  • trent

    “but I would be relieved beyond measure if it turned out that a fair number of them thought the film didn’t “get” the series either.”

    I’ll let you know when I see it.

    You know, in August or so.

    (Bloody three hour drive to the nearest first run cinema.)

    Actually, it’ll probably hit Dawson in a couple weeks, but Colette has served notice that she wants to see it with me, and chances are she won’t be able to until it’s out on video.

  • Anonymous

    Re: 1941

    Forgive me if this tangent overstays its welcome; I think the issues that many folks had against 1941 when it first came out has long since changed with the times. The multiple story-lines (seven) is a lot, but films like Magnolia have better prepared us for that. The film boasts some of the best comedians of its day on one set, some of whom were making their movie debuts (Aykroyd, Candy). It has some phenomenal set pieces (the Amusement Park, the dogfight over Rodeo Drive), and the dancing sequence is the closest Spielberg has ever received from being an all-out musical (even moreso than “Temple of Doom”). And the musical score is my absolute favorite of all of John Williams’ scores.

    The thing going against it is really two things: an expensive joke that bombs with you, well, can bomb big. And it is a long movie, which might become kind of numbing after a while. It may work better in two sittings.

    But don’t be afraid of it. Much of it was ahead of its time, and the special effects have aged far, far better than that of Ghostbusters (altho, GB was a funnier movie).

    –Nick

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02318722685088615243 Karl

    Candy and Akroyd did not make their fil debuts in 1941. They were early works, sure, but not debuts.

    1941 seemed to me (then) to be an Animal house reunion.

    What surprises me was I cannot figure out much of what they did to warrent the big budget.

    The film wasn’t that immense to me.

    So Peter, how close does the Hitchhikers film follow the books?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Candy and Akroyd did not make their fil debuts in 1941. They were early works, sure, but not debuts.

    True.

    1941 seemed to me (then) to be an Animal house reunion.

    FWIW, according to the IMDB, the only project Candy and Aykroyd had both been part of before 1941 (1979) was a TV series called Coming Up Rosie (1975-77) — and even then, they apparently worked on the show in different seasons. Neither actor was involved in Animal House (1978).

    And FWIW, the only Animal House cast members that returned in 1941 were John Belushi and Tim Matheson — and John Landis, who directed Animal House and apparently had roles (presumably small) in both films.

    So Peter, how close does the Hitchhikers film follow the books?

    I have only read the first book, and that was 14 years ago, so I honestly couldn’t say. Some things in the film I recognized, and a whole lot of other things I did not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15729167937433295927 Geosomin

    You know, I enjoyed the movie…enough to see it twice. Maybe I am a little less attached it, but I feel they really captured the spirit of the book in the film. I thought the actors picked for Zaphod, Ford, Slartibartfast and Arthur to be great in their roles. I know they weren’t all british, but nothing in the book said they should be, other than arthur. The actress who played Trillian was average, and if anything the weakest performance in the movie, but overall I enjoyed it, especially the homage to the original movies in the opening bits, and Stephen Fry as the book was about as perfect as could be. I liked the extra touch of having the original Arthur Dent as the hologram of the message from Magorathea.
    I mean no it wasn’t perfect, but overall they did a great job of bringing the spirit of the author’s crazy story and style of writing to the movie. Things were changed (as happened every time with the radio and previous BBC movie), but when you consider how almost disjointed the book was, the movie did a decent job of pulling it together. Some bits and characters are different or new, but overall I thought-hey well done. I’m sure some people will have favorite bits that weren’t there and may not like all the new stuff, but as I was really worried about the whole project being horrid, I was very happily surprised. I was honestly worried about the choices for Ford and Zaphod, but I think the actors did a bang up job.I also liked that the vogons were not CGI, they were very..well..alien. Imaginitive.
    Guess I”m gonna have to disagree with you Pete – I thought this movie was great.


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