This review is based on a substantially complete version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy shown to a small group of journalists in London on 31st March 2005, to which I was invited by Buena Vista International and Digital Outlook. The generosity of these companies in paying for my travel to this screening is gratefully acknowledged. The opinions expressed here are the personal critical opinions of myself, author and journalist MJ Simpson. This review is based on a single viewing of the film; if any factual details have been misremembered, I am happy to amend those portions of the text. Because of its great length, this review has been split into four parts:
WARNING. This reviews contains many SPOILERS including the entire plot of the film.
The Heart of Gold ends up on the planet Viltvodle (not Viltvodle VI, as in previous versions), home of the Jatravartids. We do briefly glimpse one token Jatravartid and there are empty aerosol cans everywhere (and a square-wheeled bicycle) but basically this is the movie's Mos Eisley, packed with aliens of different species. One of these, a being who squeals with delight at seeing Zaphod, is a Japanese schoolgirl with five torsos but only one pair of legs. I'm really not sure what that was about. We also have the scene from the trailer with Ford meeting an ex-girlfriend represented by a pair of giant (forced perspective) legs.
Zaphod, Arthur and Trillian enter Humma Kavula's temple, the entire design ethos of which is based around noses. That is supposed to tie in with the Great Green Arkleseizure theory although it seems odd that the Jatravartids would have considered the Arkleseizure to have a human nose (all the noses are based on the proportions of Douglas Adams own schnoz, which might have been funny - for those who know about it - if the idea was used sparingly but the whole nose design thing is laid on with a trowel).
Now, I just don't get Humma Kavula. He is supposed to be a missionary, but missionaries traditionally travel to foreign climes to convert the natives from the local religion to their own. Humma is clearly not a Jatravartid (in one early draft he was actually half-Vogon, presumably until it was realised that this involved the unpleasant idea of something that wasn't a Vogon breeding with a Vogon) but he has come to the Jatravartid planet to preach the Jatravartid religion to non-Jatravartids. Everyone in his congregation is very clearly humanoid. Isn't that like an English missionary going to Africa to preach about African gods to white settlers? Doesn't it, you know, not make any sense?
The Humma scenes look like they have been trimmed considerably, which is quite probable as their pointlessness was the most consistent negative comment among reports of early test screenings. We see Humma remove the nose of one of his followers, revealing the acolyte to be a robot (or at least, he has a robotic nose) but this isn't commented upon and seems to have no meaning or relevance.
Humma has, it turns out, the co-ordinates for the location of Magrathea. Which is handy because thats what Zaphod is looking for. And they're in the form of a cube which is specifically designed to fit the Infinite Improbability Drive, which is supremely convenient. However there is absolutely no explanation of how or why such a thing might exist or how or why Humma might have possession of it. In fact, lets just examine what we have here: the Heart of Gold, with its unique propulsion system, has landed by chance on a planet that the crew werent aiming for, where they have immediately encountered someone they know, who has a means for them to get to where they ultimately want to be - in a format which is specifically configured for their unique ship. If some play was made over how improbable all this is, perhaps it might be excusable but, as we have seen, this film was made by people who dont know what improbable actually means. As it is, this is all merely lazily scripted deus ex machina plot progression.
Humma is prepared to give this infocube to Zaphod on two conditions: he wants Zaphod to bring him back a special gun from Magrathea and he wants a hostage to ensure that Zaphod returns. In an early draft this was to be Trillian, but now he takes Zaphod's second head (we see a silhouette of Zaphod strapped down and Humma advancing with a circular saw, and Zaphod wears a neck bandage afterwards).
The head is left attached to a dancing hula doll - I have no idea what the hell that is all about - and we never ever find out what happened to the occasionally glimpsed third arm which is presumably removed at the same time because Zaphod later says of the Heart of Gold that he needs his third arm to operate it. We'll come to the subject of Zaphod's heads in a moment.
For now, let me observe that there are a couple of funny Humma Kavula bits. We see in a newscast that his Presidential campaign, when he lost to Zaphod, was based on the slogan 'Don't vote for stupid', and his sermon finishes with his followers saying 'a-choo' instead of 'amen' - to which he responds, 'Bless you.' But all the other nose stuff which is crammed into the Humma scenes has no humour value whatsoever and the entire sequence could be pretty much removed without harm. It has only two purposes: it gives the characters an excuse to retrieve the weapon which will become relevant later on, though the story would have worked just as well if they had merely found it by chance; and in an unnecessary moment of clumsy character development it shows Arthur as cowardly in front of Trillian, in an exchange which seems to come from nowhere and doesn't fit in with Arthur's character or motivation as established up to this point in the film. I dont know: maybe they have cut some parts of this scene, parts where Humma is actually threatening, because as it stands, prior to Zaphods decapitation, there is absolutely nothing for Arthur to be cowardly about.
But let's get back to Zaphod's heads, and let me be quite unequivocal about this. Zaphod's heads in the film are rubbish. In fact, Zaphod as a whole is rubbish. The whole point of Zaphod (and let's face it, Douglas Adams characters are never terribly complex) is that he puts a great deal of effort into appearing laid back and cool. Sam Rockwell's Zaphod is not at any point even slightly laid back or cool. He's nasty and mean - but not in the old, amusing, condescending, Hey, Monkeyman sort of way - and he has this hideous extra face in his throat which occasionally pops up so that he can be extra nasty. He also has a third arm which, in an astounding display of cut-price moviemaking that would shame Roger Corman, is kept completely hidden under a small cloak, only emerging a couple of times very briefly. Jeez, how much would a prosthetic spare arm have cost?
We do get a brief exchange with Ford where Zaphod explains that the second 'head' is because a President is only allowed to have half a brain. One review of a test screening expanded on this, saying that Zaphod concealed the removed half-brain in his second head in case he needed it later, but all we get by way of explanation now is: "Some parts of my personality are not exactly Presidential." Which doesn't explain in any way why he has an angry face in his throat.
Allegedly Zaphod's over-under head configuration was thought up by Douglas Adams which, as previously explained, is not a valid excuse. If it was indeed Douglas idea, then it was devised as a way of having two heads using film effects circa 1998, not circa 2004. Effects have continued to advance in those six years and it would now be entirely possible to have a Y-shaped spine and two side-by-side heads, using a combination of CGI, green screen and prosthetics. Zaphod's second head may have been a throwaway radio joke but it has come to define who he is. And the fact that, unlike most other multi-headed characters, he has only the one personality rather than bickering with himself, was part of the joke. The second head is funny precisely because it doesn't do anything. Its a massive non sequitur.
The movie version of Zaphod looks bad and acts bad and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the character as portrayed in any previous incarnation of Hitchhiker's Guide (which is ironic given that Sam Rockwell played a note-perfect version of Zaphod in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). After his second head is removed and spiked on - let's just remind you of this - a dancing hula doll, he spends the rest of the movie acting half-drunk, which I couldn't figure out at all. Surely he is using the same semi-brain he had in the first part of the film, just without the annoying interruptions from the other, disconnected half. Occasionally he is sobered up briefly by the use of a 'thinking cap', a helmet with a lemon squeezer on top, on which Ford squeezes lemons.
Now the thinking cap is a fine example of two recurring problems with this film. First, although it sounds like it might be a wacky and zany idea, it simply isn't funny at all, either in its concept or its execution. (It's what Ken Campbell calls a jokoid - something that has the shape of a joke but is not actually funny.)
Secondly, it's lemons that make it work, not Arcturan mega-lemons or anything science fictional like that. Throughout the film, there are lots of throwaway jokes of this sort, involving Earth things (like dancing bloody hula dolls) rather than oddball variants of Earth things, which is what Douglas Adams' universe has traditionally been filled with. We see this with the Heart of Gold: every item that it transmogrifies into is an Earth item. A flower or a ball of wool or a teapot; not an alien-looking flower or a sentient ball of wool or a five-spouted teapot.
Anyway, a bunch of Vogons, accompanied by Zaphod's Vice President Questular Rontok, are chasing him because he kidnapped himself at the Heart of Gold launch ceremony (seen in a newscast - its the kidnapped President that theyre worried about, not the stolen spaceship). The Vogons turn up on Viltvodle and carry off Trillian as the alleged kidnapper. Arthur wants to go after them, but Zaphod wants to continue to Magrathea. So off they go in the Heart of Gold. (This, incidentally, is pretty much the last we will ever see or hear of Humma Kavula. The subplot is set up - and is never paid off.)
They arrive at another planet and Zaphod dances around, cheering that they have found Magrathea, just as he did when they arrived at Viltvodle. At this point (and indeed for some time to come) there is still no explanation of what Magrathea is or why it holds the key to Zaphod's quest. And let's just examine Zaphod's quest, which has always previously been to plunder the mythical planet Magrathea for its enormous wealth. Here there is no reference to Magrathea being fabulously wealthy or indeed mythical, hence no explanation of why they couldn't find it without Humma's help; nor, as we have seen, is there any explanation of how Humma is in a position to help them when they ask. In fact the Guide entry on Magrathea is completely absent, as is any discussion of the planet among the Heart of Gold crew. So those people new to Hitchhikers Guide will not have a clue what is going on.
In this version Zaphod is now, based on the video recording which we saw, seeking the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. This, he apparently believes, will bring him fame and riches and he believes that the Question can be found by going to Magrathea and asking Deep Thought (I know what youre going to say here - hold that thought). In one of the few logical bits of dialogue in the film, it is pointed out to Zaphod that, as President of the Galaxy, he already has fame and riches. Then in a return to nonsensical but expedient dialogue, Zaphod says that Presidential fame is fleeting but the fame of the Question will last.
Somebody who really doesn't understand Hitchhiker's Guide, or who is trying to summarise it without having read/heard/seen it recently, might think that the story was about the search for the Ultimate Question. In fact, the whole central joke of Hitchhiker's, for Zarquon's sake, is that this massive philosophical enquiry into the meaning of it all is a minor subplot. None of the main characters are especially bothered about the Ultimate Question, the concept of which is in any case entirely unknown in our universe except to the Magratheans who built the Earth for beings from a different dimension. Arthur's quest is for a return home and a nice cup of tea; Zaphod's quest is a purely avaricious desire for fabulous wealth and the fame and sex that comes with it; Ford's quest is for a good party - 'a strong drink and a peer group'; and inasmuch as Trillian ever had a quest it was for something more than 'the dole queue again on Monday morning'.
When the possibility of learning the Question crops up, the characters are mildly interested, as who wouldn't be, but they are none of them driven by it - until now. A bunch of people ignoring the possibility of discovering the meaning of life because they are concerned about a party or a cup of tea or whatever is funny. A bunch of people searching for the meaning of life, well, isn't.
So the Heart of Gold arrives at another random planet, which turns out to be Vogsphere (complete with jewelled scuttling crabs) and they go down to the surface in something called the Hogpod. Given that we have already established that the Heart of Gold can make planetfall, this small excursion vehicle would seem to serve no narrative purpose whatsoever except to provide some lame physical comedy. Conveniently this planet is where the Vogons have taken Trillian. Arthur and the others havent followed the Vogons here; they havent been directed here by some benefactor or worked out for themselves where they need to be. The Infinite Improbability Drive has simply dumped them in orbit around another planet which just happens to be where their incarcerated friend is being held, something which they apparently know even though they have no obvious way of knowing it. And the Infinite Improbability Drive brought them here instead of their intended destination of Magrathea despite being fitted with Hummas infocube that has accurate directions to Magrathea in it. Oh, and the Vogons who took Trillian, despite not having anything as fabulous as the Infinite Improbability Drive, have got here before them.
Arthur, Ford, Zaphod and Marvin head towards the Vogon city, but discover that every time one of them has an idea, he gets smacked in the face by a paddle (this doesnt affect Marvin, even though he must have millions of ideas). Its a measure of how few and far between the jokes are in this film that at least half of the small laughs that it generates are in this slapstick scene. Although it is never stated, this system of paddles is supposedly responsible for both the Vogons blind, bureaucratic obeisance and their upturned noses. However, it only seems to operate on the desolate wasteland outside the city so its difficult to see how that could be the case. Nor is there any hint of how or why such a system may have been set up, or by whom. So with the reason for these paddles stated in publicity but not in the film, and the origin of these paddles never stated anywhere, this whole scene comes across as entirely gratuitous slapstick, as if the film-makers were desperate to stick a few laughs in somewhere and couldnt justify the presence of a banana skin on an alien planet.
Eventually the team make it to the city. Now, I do in fact like the grey, square monolithic design of the Vogon buildings, spaceships and indeed everything else in their culture, which pretty accurately reflects the Vogon character. And while were at it, the Vogons themselves are magnificent animatronic creations from the clever folk at Hensons. We see old Vogons, young Vogons, even a female Vogon, and they are only let down by their very human-sounding voices, but perhaps that will change in the final sound mix.
Short film review (no spoilers)