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Don't panic

A review of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (PG)

Never forget your towel: (from left) Ford Prefect (Mos - Def), Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Zaphod - Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell).
  • Never forget your towel: (from left) Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell).

*The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (PG)

Touchstone Pictures
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

When it comes to escaping almost certain death at the clutches of aliens, it helps to remember two things: your bath towel and two words -- "Don't panic" -- from the galaxy's best-selling book.

Such is the logic of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the cult-classic space romp created by British author Douglas Adams as a 1978 BBC radio play and, later, as a 1981 TV series and a round of hugely successful novels. This long-awaited film version, presented by Walt Disney, contains much of the same stream-of-conscience lunacy that made Adams a god among geeks worldwide.

The story traces the life of Arthur Dent, played by Martin Freeman (from the original British "The Office" TV series), a whiny Englishman who is rescued from the Earth's annihilation by Ford Prefect (rapper Mos Def), an amiable alien.

Prefect explains that the planet is being destroyed in order to build an outerspace highway bypass and introduces Arthur to the Hitchhiker's Guide, stylishly animated as a funky computerized operating system for travel advice.

The film only becomes stranger as the pair land on the spacecraft that destroyed Earth. The ship is piloted by the Vogons, a race of disgusting alien bureaucrats (masterfully created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop) whose most deadly weapon is bad poetry. The two narrowly escape death when the Vogons toss them into space at the exact moment a renegade spacecraft passes through.

On this second spaceship, Arthur and Ford find the other main characters of the film: Zaphod Beeblebrox (the self-absorbed president of the galaxy, played by a magnificently hairmetal-coiffed Sam Rockwell), Marvin the depressed robot, and Trish/Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), a girl Arthur almost picked up at a costume party on Earth before she was snatched by Zaphod. The group undergoes a wacky run of adventures, each more improbable than the next, including a hilarious scene in which the characters are transformed into yarn.

For those who never read the books, all this will undoubtedly seem confusing. And Adams disciples will probably regard Disney's treatment of the story (playing up the romance between Arthur and Trish) as too cute, which it is. While Freeman and Rockwell seem aptly cast, Descanel and Mos Def are stiff.

For Hitchhiker's purists, the film pulls off some nice touches. In the moments before Earth's destruction, a newspaper page flutters in the wind and onto the screen. The headline reads, "Dolphins disappear," a reference to Adams' memorable theory that dolphins are more intelligent than humans, evacuating the planet before it blows up. Before they leave, the dolphins perform a complicated series of flips, translated in dolphin as "So long and thanks for all the fish." By retaining most of Adams' vision, the film maintains the sense of giddy, surreal wonder the books are famous for.

By combining arcane references with often dazzling costumes and special effects, the result is a movie that will appeal to hipsters and families alike. Though he clearly struggled with the movie-length format, applaud rookie director Garth Jennings (previously known as a music-video director for bands like Blur) for making a film with wide appeal. Yet the pace is frantic throughout, resulting in one-dimensional characters and a plot that isn't particularly strong.

Still, the film is delirious and intelligent, worthy of Adams' legacy (he died in 2001), and will undoubtedly be followed by a sequel.

-- Dan Wilcock

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