How absurd is life? Is it:
A) Completely comprehensible—everything is fine.
B) Absurd in many of its workings.
C) Absurd to the point of being meaningless.
Your answer will influence how much you like , the new film version of the late Douglas Adams' stories. If you answered A—OK, Mr. Rumsfeld, stay home. For those who answered B and C, there's a good bit of fun in this new film.
Science fiction once foretold of shiny happy people in fine machines, but no longer. That's what decades of amazing technological progress and concurrent pulverization of humanity will do. The disconnect between what advanced technology putatively gives man and what it actually delivers is rich with comic potential—and a few have made good on it. TV's was first unveiled with a panoramic drawing of its vision of Tomorrowland: Space cars zipping through the ether, and a jet-pack-wearing dog chasing a jet-packed cat (plus a couple of robots shooting craps on a rooftop and the universe is recognizable). Alas, Futurama did not live up to that initial brilliance.
Adams' Hitchhiker has a great deal of promise—the book describes the Nutri-Matic food-processing contraption that tests a person's taste-buds, then dispenses drinks tailored to please. Adams writes that the machine was so erratic and buyer complaints so fierce that the manufacturer's complaints department "now covers the major land masses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star System." Knowing what we know now about technology, that's a credible hypothesis.
The disconnect between what advanced technology putatively gives man and what it actually delivers is rich with comic potential.
The Hitchhiker's Guide starts with average Englishman Arthur Dent, who is having a bad day. He discovers that his home is about to be demolished. So is his planet (i.e., Earth), but he's lucky to be friends with an extraterrestrial, Ford Prefect, who gets them both out of danger. Alas, their first stop is on one of the spaceships that destroyed Earth, and the officious aliens aboard (Vogons, an ugly, bureaucratic race) torture them with bad poetry, then pitch them into deep space.
Coincidentally (coincidences are a leitmotif in Hitchhiker), Arthur and Ford find themselves on a different spaceship, with the Zaphod Beeblebrox, Mr. President of the Galaxy and Ms. Trillian, a former Earthling. Ford knows the prez. Arthur knows Trillian. Arthur is as happy to see her as any ardent young man likes to see a young lady he really fancies in the company of a two-faced idiot. There's a robot aboard, too—more about him later. Zaphod has stolen the spaceship, and is on a quest that could be dreamed up only by a man of two minds.
Hitchhiker is a road movie on an intergalactic scale. The company is good, and there are fun things to do and interesting (if often life-threatening) aliens to meet along the way. A doubt arises, that must be grappled with: To echo a World War II slogan—is this trip really necessary?
BBC TV made a great in 1982 showing how British wit, creativity and acting can triumph over technological and budget limits. The 190 minutes of the miniseries format gave Adams' space to populate a universe with eccentrics, and time for viewers to appreciate them. Reality TV and other idiocies have made us forget that television is the best format for a story that takes more than three hours to tell. (Yes, you can make real works of art for television, but TV networks pay their executives huge salaries to prevent such things from happening.)
Reality TV and other idiocies have made us forget that television is the best format for a story that takes more than three hours to tell.
England's Granada Television great succeeded, thanks to the remarkable fidelity of John Mortimer's screenplay to Evelyn Waugh's novel (along with superb acting and excellent cinematography), and the eleven hours it had to tell a complex, layered tale. Coincidentally, the actor Simon Jones aptly played the stolid and mysterious Lord Brideshead in that miniseries, as well as brilliantly personifying Arthur Dent in the BBC's TV and radio series. Jones was a man born to speak the line, "Has life always been this crazy, or have I just been too wrapped up in myself to notice?"
In the new film, Martin Freeman does fairly well as Arthur Dent, taking a more stressed approach to the role—like Kenneth Branagh's Henry V compared to Lawrence Olivier's. Like Branagh's film of Henry V, the new Hitchhiker can be creditably compared to the older masterpiece.
Rapper Mos Def makes an affable Ford Prefect in the new film, but he's not as appropriately eccentric as David Dixon in the BBC version. Sam Rockwell's manically sunny and stupid Zaphod Beeblebrox wins out over Mark Wing-Davey's more obnoxious Z.B. As Trillian, Zooey Deschanel puts the je ne sais quoi into the new film's raison d'etre, handily surpassing the BBC's Sandra Dickinson, who, it must be said, seems to have been instructed to play a bimbo.
Marvin, the most brilliant idea Adams had for a character (he's the robot on board with Trillian, et al.) provides a useful comparison between the two versions of Hitchhiker. Marvin was a new type of robot, with "GPP"—genuine people personalities. Marvin's makers gave him a very depressed personality, and his continual whining is the zenith of sci-fi absurdity. In the new film, Marvin has the marvelous voice of , which is like having Eric Clapton play guitar at your wedding—it sounds great, but does he have enough to do if he sticks to the script? (Readers can decide whether After Midnight would be on Mr. Clapton's set list.)
Adams' keen sense of absurdity shifts to the aforementioned Type C (i.e., life is truly meaningless).
The BBC's Marvin lacked Richman's rich delivery, but his appearance was perfect—a 1980s British update on a 1960s made-in-Japan robot. The new film's sphere-headed Marvin isn't terribly funny to look at (we get do get a glimpse of the marvelous old Marvin in the new movie).
The film ably updates one gadget—the "Guide" of the title, an interactive book which explains some of the strange beings one encounters in Adams' universe. The BBC's show's graphics (by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios) were simple, but hilarious. Shynola, a British art cooperative, created the guide for the new film, and it's comparable to the glorious original. (You can see some of the graphics by clicking on ).
All in all, the film's good for more than a few laughs, but Adams' keen sense of absurdity shifts to the aforementioned Type C (i.e., life is truly meaningless). Hitchhiker includes a couple of subplots about various creatures' seeking the meaning of it all. In Adams' view, it's a fools errand. The joke, in that case, is on us.