Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful [as the Babel fish] could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God.
Something’s Missing, but Don’t Panic!
The argument goes like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book, Well That about Wraps It Up for God.
Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The new big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the Babel fish, along with an entertainingly illustrated Guide entry on exactly how it works and why it’s so mind-bogglingly useful. What it hasn’t got are Adams’s satiric asides on the philosophical implications of the Babel fish, in a few short sentences riffing on the theological argument from design, the popularized mass marketing of academic arguments, and the naiveté of extolling dialogue as a means for resolving all our differences.
Directed by Garth Jennings, the new Hitchhiker’s Guide has the whimsical look and absurdist feel of Adams’s universe, which remains best known in its novelized form, but which originated as a radio series and was later realized as a BBC television series, a set of records, a computer game, and even stage adaptations. What it’s missing is the subversive commentary, the razor-edged deconstruction of human foibles. We get Adams the absurdist, but not Adams the provocateur.
A Mostly Harmless Adaptation
Adams’s best-known taglines include the phrases “Don’t Panic!” (the blurb in large friendly letters on the cover of the titular Guide) and “Mostly Harmless” (the expanded but still disconcertingly brief Guide entry on the Earth, an indication of the Earth’s importance in the Grand Scheme of Things according to Adams). Reviews of the film will doubtless be lining up in droves behind one or the other of these slogans, but “Mostly Harmless” is so apropos to this suitably droll but inoffensive adaptation that it’s worth making the point anyway.
The opening act, which includes a very funny sequence on the evacuation of Earth by the dolphins and their unsuccessful attempts to alert mankind to our impending doom, as well as the introduction of English everyman Arthur Dent (ideally cast Martin Freeman) and galactic rambler Ford Prefect (surprisingly effective Mos Def), is as good as the film gets.
Other parts are also well-cast, including enigmatically appealing Zooey Deschanel as the semi-unattainable Trillian, and hilariously abrasive Sam Rockwell, simultaneously channeling Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in the role of two-headed, half-witted Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox. (Unfortunately, the film’s somewhat revisionist take on Zaphod’s two heads doesn’t work as well as Rockwell’s performance.)
Alan Rickman effortlessly nails the ultra-depressed cadences of Marvin the paranoid android (that’s Warwick Davis in the curiously cutified costume, sagging his head in despair with perfect timing), and Bill Nighy makes a delightful Slartibartfast.
Art direction, production values, and special effects are all pretty much exactly what they should be. The Vogons, those stultifyingly hidebound civil servants with their impenetrable bureaucracy and mind-shattering poetry, are brilliantly brought to life, not as CGI successors to The Phantom Menace’s Boss Nass, but as giant puppets by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The Guide entries, drily narrated by Stephen Fry, are illustrated with almost retro 2-D computer animation that feels right.
A Nihilistic Sense of Cosmic Absurdity
Occasionally the film even enhances the Adamsesque goofiness with new inventions, including the unpredictably goofy side effects of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Even when Hollywood formula starts weaning the storyline away from the books, the trappings and sensibilities remain recognizably Adamsesque (Adams is credited with creating new characters and sequences for the film, though other writers had a hand in the screenplay after he died). Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they work in the film.
Purists may resent the introduction of Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), an unnervingly conceived religious leader whom Zaphod beat out for the presidency, and the Point of View Gun that Kavula is after, but either would be at home in Adams’s books. More to the point, though, neither Humma Kavula nor the gun has much of a point in the story being told here.
Likewise, one of the film’s more inventive images involves a literally slapstick sequence in which Arthur, Ford and Zaphod must run a punishing gauntlet of thought-sensitive booby traps. It’s the kind of thing Adams might have come up with, but in the books he would have told us (a) who built the traps and why, (b) how they work, (c) what unforeseen consequences their deployment has had, and, most crucially, (d) what thought-suppressing expedient ultimately enabled Arthur, Ford and/or Zaphod to thwart them (a constant stream of small talk? singing sitcom theme songs? listening to broadcast presidential debates?).
Adams was a convinced atheist, and a nihilistic sense of cosmic absurdity along with satirical barbs at religion jostles in his books with a tenacious preoccupation with the notion of meaning and ultimate answers. The movie ventures to throw in a broadly satiric poke at religion, and goes through the motions of the quest for the ultimate answer of life, the universe and everything, but it’s ultimately too interested in its “mostly harmless” status to have teeth.
As a result, what should have been a bitingly Gilliamesque Men in Black comes off as a hit-and-miss Britcom Galaxy Quest. For many viewers, the film may fall between two stools, neither satisfying diehard fans nor engaging newcomers. But for viewers who like myself similarly fall between those two stools, for moderate Adams fans who know enough to get the jokes but aren’t emotionally invested enough to be outraged by the film’s shortcomings, this Hitchhiker’s is a worthwhile tour of Adams’s riotous world.
(c) 2005 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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