"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a most remarkable book."
Forgive me, I have to say it. I really have no choice. It's unavoidable. So here it is:
There, I've gotten that out of the way. Don't panic, indeed. Douglas Adams' hoopy science fiction comedy masterpiece The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has gone through many incarnations over the years, from radio program to stage play, record albums, computer game, a wonderful five-part trilogy of novels, a bath towel, and an extraordinarily low-budget television production. Each of them was brilliant, yes even the towel. Yet somehow the long-gestating plans to adapt the property into a feature film proved incredibly difficult, even with the author himself toiling away at the script. Budget was less an issue than time. Adams' writing style was fragmented and chaotic. How do you squeeze all of his stray tangents, random philosophical digressions, throwaway jokes that continually loop back around one another, and messy loose ends into a running time of less than two hours? It seemed an impossible task, more so when Adams passed away unexpectedly in 2001. Work continued under the stewardship of British production team Hammer & Tongs (Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith), their plans ruthlessly scrutinized by the author's legion of fans. Finally released in 2005, the Hitchhiker's Guide film could have easily gone disastrously wrong with just the slightest misstep. Don't panic just yet. The movie may not be perfect but it is a worthy illustration of Adams' crazy universe.
Martin Freeman, star of the original British version of The Office, steps into the role as ape-descendant Arthur Dent, an average schlub who just wants to have a nice cup of tea in peace when he learns that his house has been scheduled for demolition to make way for a highway bypass, and further that his entire planet has likewise been scheduled for demolition to make way for a hyperspace bypass. That's no way to start a morning. Fortunately, Arthur's oddball friend Ford Prefect reveals himself as not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Escaping Earth at the last minute, the two find themselves traipsing across the universe in the company of a paranoid android, Arthur's almost-girlfriend, and the crazy self-kidnapped President of the Galaxy, the latter of whom leads them in search of a mythical planet that may hold the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. All this, and Arthur still can't find a decent cup of tea anywhere. Isn't that just his luck?
The movie opens gloriously with an inspired musical number that Adams would no doubt have adored. Hammer & Tongs bring a playful visual style that fits the material well, both in terms of silly sight gags and elaborate special effects.
Their depiction of the Vogons (brought to life with the help of the Henson Creature Workshop) is absolutely perfect, and the animated Guide book entries are cleverly done. Freeman is ideally cast as Arthur; the moment he was announced for the project I couldn't imagine anyone better. Zooey Deschanel is incandescent as his love interest Trillian, Sam Rockwell is an absolute riot as the loopy Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Bill Nighy plays Slartibartfast as if the role were always written with him in mind. Better yet, Marvin the android (a combination of Warwick Davis in a robot costume with Alan Rickman's manically depressed voice) hits all the right notes in the creation of this crucially endearing character.
Unfortunately, Mos Def stands out as miscast for the role of Ford. It has nothing to do with race; his flighty performance is just all wrong. The movie also lacks Adams' incisive satirical edge, focusing more on visual puns than subversive wit. Many of the best dialogue exchanges from the book series have been reduced to their barest coherency, sapping them of the pleasure of trying to navigate the author's relentlessly convoluted trains of thought. The film feels like it was made primarily for existing Guide fans, who will recognize most of the jokes in advance and fill in the missing bits from their knowledge of the material. Casual viewers are likely to find the whole thing pleasantly amusing but hardly a work of genius.
Indeed, the Hitchhiker's Guide movie failed to capture a mass audience, its modest box office performance likely killing any chance of continuing the series. That's too bad, because although imperfect it's a fun picture that Douglas Adams probably would have approved and enjoyed.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
The disc opens with a forced Blu-ray promo and an anti-piracy ad that can fortunately be skipped but are a nuisance. Like all of Buena Vista's Blu-rays, there is no main menu screen, just Blu-ray pop-up menus accessible while the movie plays. This becomes an issue during the initial set-up if you wish to change your audio or subtitle options. Since the pop-up menus don't work while the movie is paused, you have no choice but to navigate through all the menus while the beginning of the movie plays beneath them, and then skip back to the start of the chapter when you're done. The interface is far from user friendly. The menus are also accompanied by annoying clicking sounds that can't be turned off.
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Hitchhiker's Guide Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG4 AVC compression on a dual-layer 50 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. A Super35 production, the composition often looks a little too tight.
This is a fairly good but at times frustrating transfer. The photography features hot, gleaming contrasts and pumped up, over-tweaked colors. I'm personally not a fan of the style. Although it was shot on film, the movie looks very digital and artificial. Fine object detail is adequately rendered, though on the whole the image has a softness about it and is extremely flat, with little to no sense of three-dimensional depth.
Grain is frequently visible, especially in the stark white interiors of the main spaceship. Under normal circumstances real film grain isn't objectionable, but with such a digitally overprocessed picture it can often look distractingly noisy. A couple of the Guide book segments are inexplicably grainy while others are perfectly clear; you'd think they should all look the same if they were produced together. Some color banding artifacts are also problematic on occasions such as when a bright light is pointed directly at the camera during a dark scene.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate Blu-ray picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in uncompressed PCM 5.1 format or in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. The sound mix is extremely bombastic and favors loudness over complexity or nuance. Dialogue is mixed very low and is frequently hard to discern, especially the Vogon characters. The lyrics to the opening musical number are also drowned out by the blaring score. Bass junkies will be pleased with the incredibly deep, room-shaking low frequency rumble, and the surround speakers get a good workout full of zippy directional effects. I was however underwhelmed with the fidelity of even the uncompressed track. I found it more obnoxious than impressive.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this Blu-ray title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video.
Missing from the DVD are an 8-minute production featurette, a sing-along to the opening musical number, a set-top game, and the cute "Improbability Drive" interface. New to the Blu-ray is:
- Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Robbie Stamp and Douglas Adams' colleague Sean Solle - The two friends of the author spend the movie reminiscing about Adams and pointing out all of their favorite Guide details, jokes, and lines of dialogue. They obviously share a deep love for the material and are pleased with how the movie turned out.
- Audio Commentary with Director Garth Jennings, Producer Nick Goldsmith, and stars Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy - This is more of a chatty party track focusing on production stories rather than the content itself.
- Deleted Scenes (2 min.) – Three very brief scenes provide little tidbits that fans will recognize from the book.
- Really Deleted Scenes (3 min.) – Two silly bits with the cast joking around on camera.
- Additional Guide Entry: The Man and the Fish (1 min.) – Another humorous passage from the book that didn't make the final cut.
- Movie Showcase - A worthless feature, all this showcase does is isolate three scenes from the movie that are meant to be the most visually impressive for independent playback.
The 2005 feature adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy doesn't fully capture the genius of its original creator, but remains a clever and fun sci-fi diversion that never takes itself too seriously. The Blu-ray edition delivers pretty good if not quite great picture and sound, as well as carrying over most of the important supplements from the DVD. Recommended.
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