Arthur Dent's (Freeman) home is about to be destroyed to make way for a bypass. Not just his house, mind, but his planet, too. Our planet. You know. Earth. Luckily, his best friend, Ford (Def), reveals himself to be an alien contributor to bestselling intergalactic book - A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and whisks Arthur off on a space-based adventure.
DON'T PANIC, fervent Douglas Adamites. This movie adaptation of the TV adaptation of the novelisation of the radio series is about as faithful as you can get. Yes, it's been tweaked and twizzled, with a romance inserted here, a new character plopped down there, but everything you love about The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy remains intact - not to mention reinvigorated by its big-screen reincarnation.
Over the years, the cinematic Hitchhiker's has almost been an Ivan Reitman movie, a Jay Roach movie and a Spike Jonze gig, but debut director Garth Jennings, one half of the duo Hammer & Tongs, proves to be a savvy choice. Like many Hollywood tyros, this born-and-bred Brit is a former commercials/musi-vid megaphoner, but with his CV bolding up the likes of Blur's Coffee And TV (you know, that oft-copied one with little milk-carton man) and those Johnny Vegas/Monkey ads, it's clear he's going to be more Jonze than McG, with a sense of humour to match the source material.
While Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Luc Besson's The Fifth Element are obvious influences, Jennings consciously avoids turning Adams' idiosyncratic, philosophically tongue-in-cheek cosmos into a slick, CG-caressed megaverse, instead maintaining that view of what's Out There as being pretty much the same as what's Down Here. Only bigger. And infinitely more daft, packed with the kind of alien races that invented underarm deodorant before the wheel, or whose poetry is so bad they use it as a form of torture. Jennings even subverts that sci-fi visual staple, the epic reveal. His Earth-surface-to-outer-orbit pull-back, which unveils the immensity of the planet-trashing Vogon fleet, isn't some portentious, graceful reverse-glide - it's a winking series of jump-cuts. When George Lucas sees that, he'll choke on his pan-galactic gargleblaster.
It's happy, it's scrappy, it embraces the aesthetic of lo-fi Brit TV sci-fi (including, yes, the BBC's Hitchhiker's telly series, referenced here in several cameos and tributes) while rarely looking like it's being unintentionally cut-rate. In one scene, we see the main cast transformed into Clangers-style knitted dolls. In another, a queue of bureaucratically trammelled extra-terrestrials are shamelessly presented like Doctor Who rejects. Meanwhile, the Guide itself (silkily voiced by Stephen Fry) hasn't been transmogrified into some shimmering, holo-device; it's still a book-sized slab which illustrates its advice using kitschy 2-D animations. Occasionally, when this cheap, cheerful feel infects the editing, it does veer into messiness, and one or two gags become lost in the mix. But what the hell - that's what repeat viewings are for.
There's no faulting the cast. Martin Freeman (aka Tim from The Office) is an inspired choice for the bleary Arthur, as perpetually rumpled as his character's never-divested dressing gown, a perfectly mundane everyman struggling to comprehend both the immensity and the stupidity of the universe beyond. He's also capable of dealing with the (added) romantic element with Trillian (a luminous Zooey Deschanel) without allowing a flicker of schmaltz into the film. Mos Def retains all of Ford Prefect's aloof nerdiness while affirming his own impeccable comic timing, Alan Rickman's nasal grumbles are spot-on for maniacally depressed robot Marvin, and if Sam Rockwell's hyperactive, self-kidnapping galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox is annoying, that's because Zaphod's an inherently irritating creation anyway.
As we said, those hardcore Hitchhikers out there have little to worry about. Although they should be warned that the movie's faithfulness means all its best jokes will be very familiar. For them, it's more a case of basking comfortably in the nostalgia than laughing out loud. But if you're new to all this, and have no idea about the significance of towels, or what a whale and a bowl of petunias have in common, then, boy, are you in for a treat...
Mostly harmless. A very British, very funny sci-fi misadventure that's guaranteed to win converts. Want to go to The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe now, please.