The 2005 motion picture version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is, as they say, neither fish nor fowl. It skips over enough of the details of the plot with little or no satisfying explanation that it really ought to be considered a "fans only", or at least "fans first" proposition; at the same time; at the same time it tweaks, tucks, and generally fucks with the source material enough that the fans are exactly the people most likely to be pissed off and hostile (I have, in my life been just such a fan).
As reasonable as this impulse is, however, it's not really appropriate. While I would imagine that very nearly everybody who thought of HHGTTG by 2005 first and foremost thought of Douglas Adams's magnificent 1979 comic sci-fi novel, that wasn't even the first version of the story, nor, by 2005, was it the last. In fact, HHGTTG, the feature film, was no less than the fifth version of the story written or co-written by Adams, following a 1978 BBC Radio 4 series, the '79 novel, a 1981 BBC2 television series, and a 1984 computer game, and by Adams's deliberate design, every one of these five incarnations was a little bit different than all of the others. Obviously he'd change things up, though what of the finished script was Adams's work - he died in 2001, before the film entered production - and what was co-writer Karey Kirkpatrick's, we had perhaps best not speculate.
With that in mind, I decided to attempt something (not entirely successfully) this time around that I'd never done before: watch the movie without checking it against the book constantly. This helped with some things - it makes the very stock "he gets the girl" ending less repulsive - and not really with others. But anyway, since my thought experiment requires that none of us have the slightest idea what HHGTTG actually is, I should probably go ahead and sketch it out. So it starts by blowing up the Earth and almost every single human being with it. The sole survivor is a very dull Englishman named Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), who had the good fortune of befriending one Ford Prefect (Mos Def), whose inexplicable name becomes more explicable when we find that he is in fact an extraterrestrial visiting Earth to write a new entry on that planet for the interstellar travel encyclopedia The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Together they escape, a couple of times over, first landing on a ship run by the repulsive galactic bureaucrats, the Vogons, and then on the very peculiar starship Heart of Gold, fueled by sheer improbability. On it, they find three souls: Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the deranged and licentious President of the Galaxy, Tricia "Trillian" McMillian (Zooey Deschanel), the only other human in the universe, who Arthur once tried to flirt with at a party, and Marvin, a morbidly depressed robot voiced by Alan Rickman and performed by Warwick Davis. The five travelers keep rocketing around space, driven by Zaphod's frenzied get-rich-quick scheme to find the lost Question to the Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything (the answer, for the record, is "42").
It's messy. Of course, it was always messy, and messiness is undoubtedly part of the appeal. But the messiness is maybe intensified a little bit in cinematic form. Perhaps it's exacerbated by the somewhat too-fast pacing, under the guiding hand of first-time movie director Garth Jennings, a music video veteran who has had a remarkably strange career in feature films: getting the keys to an effects-driven medium-budget adaptation of a cultishly adored book, and then jumping over to the microscopically small character indie Son of Rambow two years later, and then leaving movies for nine years until he could return with the shitty animated jukebox musical Sing. Almost none of that actually matters, except the part pointing out that Jennings was a little ol' newbie, and HHGTTG was not, perhaps, a script that wanted an untested director: Adams, in most media and in most of his different projects, wrote with the illusion of madcap chaos hiding a ruthlessly tight control over every single beat and gag. Jennings directs with actual madcap chaos, and the results are dauntingly overstuffed.
Not that the results aren't also enjoyable! The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could surely be a lot better, but even granting that, there's much to enjoy in the film that exists, with its organic mixture of comic tones, and generally upbeat attitude of breezy fun. I have conceptual problems with the casting - in a perfect world, there wouldn't be a single American in the cast, as opposed to three-quarters of the leading roles - but there's no denying that most of the people are pretty perfect fits for their characters. The only performance of any meaningful size that I just don't care for is Rockwell's (an enormously rare misfire from the actor), a bit too heavily swaggering in a specifically American music star idiom to feel right for the deranged, ultra-British sci-fi absurdism around him. The rest of the leads range from at least very solid (Deschanel) to perfect, albeit unimaginative (Freeman), to being whatever the hell Mos Def hit upon, and I adore it: his keyed-up reactions and line readings feel just "off" enough to suggest a non-human alien who has spent years learning our behaviors, but who has to still think hard about playing at them. The film also acquits itself well in its small roles: Bill Nighy's late appearance as a distant, quiet nervous engineer is a faultless comic performance, and Helen Mirren and Stephen Fry are both superbly-cast in vocal cameos as the universe's wisest computer and the Guide itself, respectively.
Clearly, everybody involved was having a fun time and the film's energy is accordingly upbeat; basically, it's a hang-out movie, and the people in it are thoroughly enjoyable company. This is a far cry from the stiletto-sharp prose of Adams's novel (which is largely replicated in the script, not always to great effect; some of the more complex writing feels precious rendered as film dialogue), and from the piled-on absurdities of the scenario, which is among the film's bigger problems: it feels lie it's trying to be relaxed and casual in its humor at one and the same time that it's ramping up the manic setpieces.
A similar conflict of tone lies in what the film even is: the material has a scrappy tone that fits the enforced cheapness of a TV series, for example, but this movie aims to be a summer tentpole that looks like it cost more than it did. Which is undoubtedly true: the CGI effects hold up beautifully after more than a decade, creating sci-fi marvels that could stand against any other genre film from around the same time (HHGTTG beat Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith to theaters by about a month; it frankly holds up better on the whole, though ROTS has stronger high points). In part, this is because of how sparingly it uses CGI: most of the aliens we see throughout are the handiwork of the Jim Henson Creature Shop, and some really beautiful pieces they are, too, though I think that the filmmakers commit the sin of showing off the effects work rather than the characters, particularly in the early scenes with the Vogons.
The point remains, though, that HHGTTG is a wonderful achievement in stretching a buck, and showing off a genuinely spectacular vision of the galaxy as a place of elaborate, pulpy spaceships and alien landscapes. The question that naturally arises: should it be? Sometimes, Jennings is able to use the effects work to his advantage - the endless series of jump cuts back into space before the Earth is destroyed is one of the funniest visual gags in a verbally-driven movie - and sometimes he lets the sets, effects, and general sense of scale swamp the comedy. It's never unpleasant to watch, outside of maybe the cluttered flashbacks that dot up in the first 20 minutes, and prohibit the film from picking up any momentum after its strong, bouncy opening (a musical number fashioned out of stock footage of dolphins). There are a few inspired flourishes, like that opening, or a short yarn-animation interlude, or a tiny, wonderful appropriation of a Star Wars sound effect. And even the uninspired parts are still a transcription of material that was close to sublime in its original forms, and nothing can entirely rob it of its effect.
The thing is, I'm not even sure I can imagine a better movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it's just the movie version was never going to be the ideal fit for this material. Still, it's nice to look at and fun to listen to, and the frothy adventure vibe is a nice change from the arch, self-serious genre filmmaking that was starting to take hold in a major way right around the time this came out.