Douglas Adams’ playful, ever-expanding (radio, books, TV…) and unusually smart sci-fi project is something of a sacred cow for its many devotees, so expect a rush of venom on internet messageboards once this hits cinemas, whatever the wider response. Adams himself struggled for years to bring his story to the screen, and it’s only now – four years after his premature death aged 49 – that his ambition has finally been realised by Hollywood. Thankfully, though, it’s not all Hollywood and no Adams. Sure, the cast includes Sam Rockwell (doing a good Dubya impression), John Malkovich, Zooey Deschanel and Mos Def – but the choice of Martin Freeman (‘The Office’) as the reluctant space-traveller Arthur Dent roots the film firmly in its original and unmistakeably British tradition. Homegrown, too, is director Garth Jennings, who forms half of Hammer and Tongs – one of London’s more original music promo and ad production outfits. Jennings’ involvement has resulted in a film that is rich in visual invention and playfulness. His choice of fellow creatives Shynola to animate the pronouncements of the ‘Guide’ itself (to the weighty voice of Stephen Fry) is particularly inspired.
We begin on Earth, where both Dent’s house and the entire planet are scheduled for demolition. Luckily for Dent, his alien friend Ford Prefect (a manic Mos Def) is there to aid his escape, so beginning a rapid journey through Adams’ imagination to Zaphod Beeblebox’s (Rockwell) spaceship, Humma Kavula’s (Malkovich) handkerchief-worshipping planet, Slartibartfast’s (Bill Nighy) planet-construction factory and some brilliantly designed, slothful and bureaucratic Vogons.
It’s a bit frenetic and cluttered, and it sometimes feels like a whirlwind tour of Adams’ ideas during which we’re not allowed to get off, take a breather and savour the view. Some dialogue is even garbled and incomprehensible. Still, all is forgiven during the film’s moments of comic or visual brilliance, such as the pronouncements of super-computer Deep Thought to a crowd wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Think deep!’ or when a sperm whale falls from the sky and considers the meaning of life. It’s not slick – and that’s a good thing. Rather, it’s like a fun and daring scrapbook – intermittently interesting but always inspired.