The Disneyfied opening of the first big-screen movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy might send Douglas Adams fans screaming for the doors with their thumbs out and their towels in their hands. But if these fellow travelers can suffer through a few minutes of frolicking dolphins and the mock seriousness of the British-accented narrator (Stephen Fry), then they can settle down to enjoy the rest.
The mood-setting is actually essential to send the uninitiated '- basically, anyone under 25 '- to another world, which is exactly where they need to be in order to understand this inventive adventure that employs a Monty Python-esque humor to spoof the earnest alien invasion movies of the 1940s and '50s. Generation Y-ers (and anyone younger) grew up instead on the likes of Independence Day and Signs, and those of them who think sci-fi spoofs begin and end with Men in Black need a little help.
They'll know they're watching something completely different immediately, because once the water mammals exit stage left, the actual movie starts with nothing less than the total annihilation of the earth. Our hero, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, who played Tim in the original British version of The Office), wakes up one morning to find his little cottage in a bucolic field about to be bulldozed to make way for a highway. But his panic is allayed by his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who tells him not to worry about it because he's got bigger problems ahead.
As he downs one last beer in the neighborhood pub, Ford explains jauntily that he is actually an alien, and the world is about to be destroyed. A few seconds later, alien spaceships shadow the earth in that familiar image of doom, while the humans look up at them in horror, powerless.
Before Arthur can object, Ford sticks out his thumb, and they are transported to the hull of a spacecraft. The only explosion we get is the cliché of the alien invasion going poof before our eyes.
First-time director Garth Jennings has Disney's entire arsenal of special effects, makeup specialists and model builders at his disposal, but he opts for subtlety over show. The sparseness of effects in an industry of biggest-ever explosions and computer-animated everything is incredibly apt for a film whose intention is to turn the norm on its head.
His sets are bare for the spaceships, and he rarely films outer space. The Vogon vessel where Arthur and Ford end up first looks like a rusting cargo ship, and the officious Vogons themselves look like they could hop from this film to be cast in another sequel to Stuart Little as unfriendly rats. The Heart of Gold craft, where they jump next, is much more modern, but in a sleek, Swedish minimalist way. Everything is stark white and tucked away. Even the planets where they land have ordinary, earthlike features.
Where Jennings is most inventive with effects '- as befits a production that holds wit above flash '- is in his characters' heads. Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the president of the universe, has two heads '- which flip up and down like a toothpaste cap '- not that they make him any smarter. His trusty robot, Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), is mostly just a huge bubble of a head, which weighs on him heavily as a depressed "Paranoid Android." The Deep Thought computer, which has spent seven and a half million years contemplating the ultimate answer to life, is similarly endowed with a big brain and a little body. And Beeblebrox's rival, Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), is just a torso and head. Of course, this bit of special effects magic is not without purpose.
In an intentionally ironic twist, the only one whose body really matters is the one with the brains. Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) is a human woman, who, despite being the object of all the male ogling, is actually more of a smart aleck than a space vixen. She's the character with the intelligence, courage and initiative to try to stave off intergalactic strife and resurrect earth. She might be just "the girl," but in this convention-bending spoof, she's the one who's really in charge while the men are buffoons. And if that alone doesn't make this film worth seeing, its refreshing dissent from the Hollywood norm might.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you want to go with somebody who doesn't know the series, so you can watch her amazement
Stars: Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def
Director: Garth Jennings
Screenwriters: Karey Kirkpatrick, Douglas Adams
Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum
Release date: April 29, 2005