Mild-mannered Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, "The Office") is having a rough day at home, but soon there is no home, after Earth is blown to bits by a bureaucratic race of aliens known as the Vogons, who are making room for a hyperspace expressway. Dent is saved by his alien friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def, "The Italian Job"), as the two hitchhike their way onto a spaceship called The Heart of Gold. It's there that Dent meets two-headed galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), earthling Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and depressed robot Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman). Faced with the destruction of his home, Vogons on his tail at every turn, and endless existential questioning on the meaning of life, all Arthur really wants is a proper cup of tea and some sanity.
Where does one start with a film this immense, yet so direct in its ideas? Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (IMDb listing) tales have crossed over every form of media, from a BBC radio series to popular novels to a questionable television miniseries (the theme of which cameos here). Yet, this is the first time the "Guide" has been brought to the narrow confines of the silver screen, which gives it money to expand Adams' limitless universe. But the adventures taken must be chosen carefully, due to the film's limited running time and newcomer patience. Not being a follower of the Adams sci-fi comic bible myself, I can say without a doubt that the clever madness that fans are so protective over has made it to the big screen in one piece. Yet, is it faithful? That's a question I cannot answer.
Music video filmmaker Garth Jennings makes his directorial debut with "Guide," and you have to feel sorry for the guy having to start out with this tale. Much like another beloved genre smash, "Lord of the Rings," "Guide" comes from labyrinthine source material, which Jennings has a hard time whittling down to 110 minutes. Starting with a dolphin musical number (taken from Adams' "Hitchhiker" book "So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish"), "Guide" rockets off in a million different directions, with Jennings panting to keep up with the multiple layers of stories and ideas. Often, the picture will simply stop and bluntly explain what's onscreen to help the majority of viewers out there who wouldn't know a Babel Fish from a Vogon. It helps in gaining a crisp understanding of Dent's journey (and the breadth of Adams' imagination), but this mechanism has a tendency to stop the film cold.
"Guide" traffics in zany, blissful images and situations, and Jennings has faithfully recreated that giddy atmosphere of Dent's adventure. From a production standpoint, "Guide" is a marvel; blessed with huge, colorful sets and exciting worlds to visit, the film never leaves the eye bored. Special attention must be paid to the alien characters, designed with true inspiration by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. In place of overused CGI, "Guide" keeps as much as it can practical, including the hulking Vogons and the bulbous Marvin. These little touches of reality in a profoundly fantastical picture bring a sense of warmth to the production, as well as crucial believability. CGI might be an easier tool, but it often has a hard time topping the realism of an animatronics figure or a puppet. Thank goodness Jennings and his production added this little touch of delight.
The film also retains the Pythonesque British sense of humor needed to pull of the comedy. "Guide" isn't a laugh-out-loud experience as much as it is a witty film, packed with references and satire. While Americans like Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell have their goofy way with the characters, English talent like Martin Freeman (his reaction to a good cup of tea is worth the admission alone), the terrific Bill Nighy (as Slartibartfast), and Alan Rickman make the humor count. The performances all around are delightful, and they save the film when it threatens to cave in under all the weight of story and pretension.
"Guide" is a gigantic, bizarre, science fiction, philosophical, slapstick comedy. And it's an extremely entertaining one at that. However, a word of warning to the uninitiated: bring a seat belt ... and a towel.
Filmfodder Grade: B