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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy DVD Review

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Theatrical Release: April 29, 2005 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Garth Jennings

Cast: Sam Rockwell (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Mos Def (Ford Prefect), Zooey Deschanel (Tricia McMillan), Martin Freeman (Arthur Dent), Bill Nighy (Slartibartfast), Warwick Davis (Marvin), Anna Chancellor (Questular), Alan Rickman (voice of Marvin), Helen Mirren (voice of Deep Thought), Stephen Fry (Narrator), John Malkovich (Humma Kavula), Richard Griffiths (Voice of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz), Simon Jones (Ghostly Image), Thomas Lennon (voice of Eddie the Computer)

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Few movies take as long to be made as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did. Adapted from Douglas Adams's witty and semi-philosophical creation of the same name, the film fluctuated through various stages of preproduction over a period of twenty years. In the mid-1980s, Ivan Reitman, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd explored the cinematic possibilities of the material before going on to make Ghostbusters, a beloved sci-fi/comedy of their own. Earlier in this decade, Jim Carrey and Jay Roach (director of Meet the Parents and the three Austin Powers movies) were attached to the project.

When it finally reached theaters near the end of last April, nearly four years after Adams's premature death at age 49, "feature film" could be added to the list of forms that the author's cult favorite has taken.
It first appeared in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy series, then in 1979 as the first of five bestselling novels, and shortly after, a widely-watched BBC television series in 1981. A computer game, comic books, and even a series of Hitchhiker's towels followed. Though Adams did not live to see the final project, the film certainly bore his mark and blessings, as he is credited as executive producer and one of the screenplay's two writers.

When the film opens, we are quickly introduced to the ordinary Englishman and extraordinary plight at its center. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman of BBC's "The Office", who is well-cast as are his co-stars, even the unlikely) wakes up and, after the routine toothbrushing, burnt toast, and morning tea, discovers his house is scheduled to be imminently destroyed by numerous bulldozers to make way for the construction of a bypass. That is merely the beginning of his worries, for his best friend Ford Prefect (hip-hopper/actor Mos Def) soon arrives with further unsettling news. Upon whisking Arthur (still in green bathrobe) away to a nearby pub for some salty peanuts and ale, Ford reveals to him that he is not from Guildford but an alien planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Oh, and that planet Earth, much like Arthur's house, faces impending demolition.

Ford Prefect (Mos Def) and Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) narrowly escape Earth's final and impending doom by hitching a ride on the destructor Vogons' ship. Foreground: Ford, galaxy president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) aboard the Heart of Gold. Background: Marvin, the manically depressed robot (played by Warwick Davis, voiced by Alan Rickman).

Fortunately and unsurprisingly as far as feature-length narratives go, Arthur and Ford manage to avoid death. They do so by "hitching a ride" onto a spacecraft operated by Vogons, the alien race that has summarily eliminated the Earth. Thus begins the intergalactic adventures of our unlikely pair (human and alien friend) of protagonists.
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They are equipped with the useful best-selling electronic guidebook of the title that Ford has been researching Earth for, the colorful and animated entries of which occasionally take over the film (as perfectly narrated by Stephen Fry). Soon, Arthur and Ford stand bound to pillars as captives of the helplessly bureaucratic and hideous-looking Vogons, forced to endure the Vogons' greatest form of torture: their unbearable poetry. It is amusing misadventures like this which distinguish Hitchhiker's as anything but the typical science fiction film.

When they are unpleasantly dispatched from the Vogons' ship, Arthur and Ford find themselves turned into sofas and landed in a ship called the Heart of Gold. When they quickly bounce back to human form, they encounter dim-witted President of the galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, showcasing his strong comedic chops), his human girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), and Marvin (played by Warwick Davis, voiced by Alan Rickman), a brilliant robot with GPP (Genuine People Personality) who is interminably depressed at being reduced to trivial tasks aboard. Coincidentally, Ford and Zaphod are old friends (and relatives), while Trillian (known then as Tricia McMillan) recently bonded with Arthur at a costume party before choosing Zaphod and space life. Such improbable occurrences are commonplace, due in part to the Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive but mostly to Adams' keen imagination and understanding of how to hold an audience captive.

Various arcs are juggled. To satiate Zaphod, the group of five journeys to the distant planet Magrathea to find the long-desired question that goes with the puzzling, already-known answer to "life, the universe and everything." They also search for a Point of View gun sought by Zaphod's creepy and unsavory presidential runner-up Humma Kavula (John Malkovich). Ford catches up with old friends, the Vogons take a prisoner, Zaphod loses the second head of his that occasionally pops up, and Arthur learns more about the inconceivable reality that his home planet no longer exists.

As Zaphod, Ford, and Arthur make their way across Planet Vogsphere, they soon realize that having ideas is punishable by slapstick. Arthur admires the planet-building factory that Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) shows him.

The episodic narrative of Hitchhiker's proceeds in a loopy and rambling fashion, but plot specifics figure less importantly than the generally entertaining mood that Hitchhiker's has found in almost all forms of media. The film embraces the bizarrely comedic in every character and scene throughout, as a sequence in which the characters inexplicably turn into yarn likeness of themselves most illustrates. This is not often randomness for its own sake, however, for the film's observations of human nature resonate and amuse without being preachy or condemnatory.

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The movie may open with the Earth being destroyed, but it charms in fondly satirizing the behaviors and tendencies of the planet's inhabitants at every turn in its comedic intergalactic adventure. Furthermore, its ponderings of man's place in the universe do not merely serve a silly backdrop that can launch laughs. They are steeped in genuine but lighthearted reflection of big questions that scientists devote their lives to and everyone else asks now and again.

Such an intelligent film stands in clear contrast to most films that can be categorized as "adventure" and its undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek nature opposes many labeled "sci-fi." Certainly, these qualities are favorable as they apply here. Hitchhiker's is energetic, winning, and unlike a great majority of films you have seen in your lifetime. The transition from past mediums to the big screen (print is the adaptative medium that was marketed and the one which most appear to be familiar with) has yielded some uneven results. Those entirely unacquainted with the source material will be puzzled by certain things never fully (or possibly) explained in the running time, such as the prevalence of towels. Meanwhile, diehard fans of Adams's creation may be disappointed to find rushed or unsatisfactory treatment of some of their favorite elements of the series. Plus, there is the fact that not all of the plots' ends tie up neatly.

If you are able to grant the film these liberties in its difficult task of weaving two and a half decades of folklore that plenty adore into a 109-minute feature, and that only seems fair, then you too will enjoy Hitchhiker's as much as I did. While not without its shortcomings, its mix of satire, scientific curiosity, impressive visuals, vast imagination, and doses of British humor is a largely pleasing one. That makes this one of the brightest entries thus far in a drab-looking year of cinema.


Post-script: Hitchhiker's was originally intended for distribution under The Walt Disney Company's Touchstone Pictures branch. In late 2004, it was heralded to "Walt Disney Pictures." Then, in early 2005, it was ushered back to Touchstone. While reasons behind the moves have never been clear, the film is rated "PG" and outside of the occasional off-color reference (that young viewers won't notice or understand anyway), it is perfectly fine for family audiences. Its content seems less objectionable than last year's blockbuster National Treasure and the Disney Store seems to be treating this like any other "Disney" film by offering lithographs with pre-orders. Perhaps one day, Disney may embrace it as they have done for Touchstone films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which they currently associate with the "Disney" name. If not, you should be able to enjoy it all the same, even if it's a bit "weirder" than most "Disney" films.

Buy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Widescreen Edition) DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
DTS 5.1 (English),
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English),
Dolby Surround (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: September 13, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $29.99)
THX-Certified with THX Optimizer Tests
Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

On DVD, the film is presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, matching the dimensions of its theatrical exhibitions. Of course, it is enhanced for widescreen televisions. As you'd suspect for a new film, picture quality is excellent. Sharpness is terrific and not excessive, the element is expectedly pristine, and the wonderful level of detail seen in theaters is appropriately preserved as well as it can be on DVD. The transfer may just miss perfection, as color consistency is questionable and a few shots look soft. But, by and large, the pleasing visuals are satisfactorily conveyed, with very little room for improvement.

Sound is offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS formats. As an outer space adventure, Hitchhiker's boasts a mix which makes good use of its sonic possibilities. Dialogue is always delivered crisply and faithfully to the diverse environments (in clear contrast to the deleted scenes' audio), sound effects make strong (but not too strong) use of all the channels, and the mostly subdued score comes through nicely. There's even a solid use of the subwoofer. Overall, I found no problems with either English soundtrack and not much difference between the formats, with DTS registering at a louder volume but offering the same appealing features of the Dolby design. Spanish and French dubs are also provided in two-channel Surround.

In the fairly standard making-of featurette, Director Garth Jennings talks about--you guessed it--making the film, his feature-length directorial debut. Questular and Zaphod engage in a bit of executive snogging in this deleted scene. One look at this picture reveals why this is a "Really Deleted Scene."

BONUS FEATURES

Whereas in the United Kingdom, Hitchhiker's makes its Region 2 DVD debut as a two-disc set, Region 1 viewers must settle for a reasonably filled single disc release. In terms of running time, the most significant supplements are two feature-length audio commentaries. The first comes from director Garth Jennings, producer Nick Goldsmith and actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy.
It is a very British-sounding commentary and a fairly engaging one too. Though the participants usually seem more concerned with entertaining themselves than listeners, their reflections lend insight into the production in a light-hearted but sincere fashion. Standout observations make note of cameos by noteworthy people from the Hitchhiker's universe (including Douglas Adams' mother), the apt-to-improvise and apt-to-doze antics of Sam Rockwell and Mos Def, respectively, and of course provide the obligatory "how we did it" discussion.

The second commentary is a bit stuffier, but also worth a listen, particularly for fans whose familiarity with Hitchhiker's goes beyond this film. This track features executive producer Robbie Stamp and Sean Solle, a colleague of Douglas Adams, and their discussion tends to focus more on this incarnation's place in the Hitchhiker's universe than the film itself. Comparisons to the books and other forms give this an angle unique and distinct from the rest of the bonus features; Hitchhiker's folklore, like the significance of "42", is often the topic at hand, and in spite of some blank spaces, the pair's ruminations upon Adams are quite informative.

"The Making of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is not the all-encompassing documentary that you may have hoped for, but a 9-minute, electronic press kit-type featurette. Director Garth Jennings bears the brunt of the talking, but there are also some sound bites from all the lead actors. Though fluffy in nature, the interview comments do inevitably cast light onto the production and its intentions. The on-set footage is interesting to see, as is a brief glimpse of a screen test by Martin Freeman and Zooey Deschanel, but there is an abundance of clips from the film, which are all oddly distorted (by vertical stretching) to appear in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

The next three listings deal with material intended (or not) for the film that was created, but cut. One "Additional Guide Entry" (0:44) is a brief animated clip about how the existence of the Babelfish proves the non-existence of God (who is depicted wearing a headband and running on a treadmill). Though this bit is taken from the book, I'm surprised it was even animated as it was sure to rub viewers the wrong way, especially those inexperienced with the source material. The three "Deleted Scenes" are bound to disappoint those hoping for bountiful footage of book portions that were filmed but not used. Together, they run just over two minutes long and sound very tinny. "Mostly Harmless" (0:48) expands upon an early scene where Arthur comes to terms with the Guide and the fact that his planet has been destroyed. "We're Going to Win" features 25 oddly amusing seconds of Vogons singing in a sort of "sound off" back-and-forth. Finally, "Impossible Forces" (0:59) depicts the implicit hook-up between Zaphod and his Vice President as they make out during the film's climactic moments. "Really Deleted Scenes" (2:43) are actually the opposite of what they claim to be. They are a couple of staged takes meant to amuse with the appearance of being just poorly-conceived sequences. They succeed in an odd way, with Arthur's escape from Slartibartfast being the funnier of the two.

Sing along with the dolphins' catchy "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish." Guess the four-letter words in "Marvin's Hangman" game. The DVD's menus brilliantly resemble the actual Hitchhiker's Guide as seen in the film.

Presented as a Sing-Along (2:34) is "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish", the catchy show-stopping tune that opens and closes the film. This song vocalizes the thoughts and intentions of dolphins in quite the amusing fashion. The footage -- the aquatic mammals performing acrobatic jumps for unsuspecting human audiences -- is taken from the beginning of Hitchhiker's, only it's slightly cropped and the title and opening credits have wisely been removed. Lyrics are provided in the lower black bar and, of course, the traditional pace-keeping "bouncing ball" has been replaced by a bouncing dolphin graphic. This welcome little inclusion beats the Flash version that appeared online upon the film's theatrical website.

Lastly, "Marvin's Hangman" offers a twist on the classic letter-guessing game. Instead of hanging a crudely-drawn stick man, wrong guesses here remove a limb from the clinically depressed robot from the film. Making things even more challenging than usual: each round's puzzle is simply one 4-letter word, only loosely related to the movie. Though simple in design, it's somewhat addictive.
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It's also fun in doses, thanks to the handful of aptly-selected soundbites from the ever-downbeat Marvin and the thrill of wondering which of three random backgrounds you'll be treated to.

It's important to mention what's not included on this disc as well. Only one supplement from the two-disc UK DVD is missing, but that is "Don't Crash", a highly-acclaimed 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary. From all I've read on this, it sounds like something which would easily qualify as one of the best bonus features of the year, with its apparently fly-on-the-wall approach taking you from the very beginning of production to the world premiere screening. It's a real shame that this is not included, though one wonders if its absence merely signifies a "double dip" opportunity in the future. Such a tactic is rarely employed for a new Buena Vista film, but other studios (like Fox) are currently making an art of it.

Also disappointingly missing from both the UK and US DVD releases are the film's three theatrical trailers. Two of the three previews stand out as being particularly effective (though modest box office returns might suggest otherwise). Those were: (1) a teaser featuring Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" which halts when the world explodes and (2) a trailer describing trailers (like a Guide entry) which both satirized and used various techniques that commonly comprise today's full-length movie promos. Years ago, you'd find at the very least one theatrical trailer as a standard DVD bonus feature. Today, for reasons that have never been made satisfyingly clear, Disney and other studios regularly exclude publicity materials on the film's DVDs themselves. You could try and track down other discs that have one or two of these spots, but the exclusion here of such a clever campaign is frustrating.

The animated menu screens brilliantly resemble the design of the Hitchhiker's Guide as seen in the film. The bright colors and rounded rectangle listings are accompanied by suitable excerpts of score and intermittent sound effects. Each menu is even accompanied by an Improbability Drive button, which when pushed yields the film's wacky transition and jumps to a random clip from the film or bonus features. It's a clever touch, to be sure, and once in a while, it will take you to an Easter Egg which is a minute-long clip from that odd bit of animation that Deep Thought is so entranced by.

Though no Hitchhiker's trailers are included, the standard Buena Vista sneak peeks include some new and exciting ones. Those which play automatically at the start of the disc preview Touchstone's upcoming thriller Flightplan, Disney and Walden's highly-anticipated adaptation The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (the first full-length trailer is finally presented on disc), Dark Water, and "Lost": The Complete First Season. The Sneak Peeks menu holds additional promos for Chicken Little (the fakeout Hitchhiker's-with-a-twist teaser that played before the film in theaters), Aliens of the Deep, Buena Vista's six most popular TV shows on DVD, and the new ABC Family series "Gilmore Girls in the City"....I mean, "Beautiful People."

With Marvin the paranoid android looking on, Arthur tries to summon the courage to jump through the whirling portal. Ford, Arthur, and Zaphod comply with the Vogons' demanding bureaucratic procedures the best they can.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Fans of the book and other incarnations of the series may be split on whether or not this feature film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works. I fall strictly into the camp that it does. Sure, it is loopy, episodic, and bound to party befuddle the unacquainted, but those qualities contribute to its unique and certain charm as a science fiction film that makes you laugh and think by keeping its sensibilities on an extremely human level.

The DVD release provides an exceptional presentation of the movie and its inspired design and supplements are mostly well-done. However, the absence of the splendid-sounding Region 2-exclusive documentary "Don't Crash" and bonus features delving into the interesting history of this project and the evolution of Adams's creation represent a missed opportunity, one which will provide future disappointment or happiness for diehard fans if a more authoritative release comes in the future.

As is, either this mostly satisfactory disc or the more extensive Region 2 DVD set of Hitchhiker's are recommended on the strengths of the film and its presentation.

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Go Region 2 and get the 2-Disc DVD from Amazon.co.uk

Related Reviews:
From Director Garth Jennings: Son of Rambow (2008)

The Cast of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Martin Freeman: Hot Fuzz (2007) | Bill Nighy: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
Zooey Deschanel: Bridge to Terabithia (2007) Surf's Up (2007) Once Upon a Mattress (2005) | Sam Rockwell: Joshua (2007)
Alan Rickman: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) | Warwick Davis: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
John Malkovich: Con Air: Unrated Extended Edition (1997) Beowulf: Director's Cut (2007) | Stephen Fry: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (1997)
Helen Mirren: The Queen (2006) | Richard Griffiths: Venus (2006) | Thomas Lennon: Reno 911!: Season 5 (2008)

Lilo & Stitch 2 (2005) | The Black Hole (1979) | Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie (2005)
Flight of the Navigator (1986) | Tron (1982) | The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) National Treasure (2004) | The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

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Reviewed September 10, 2005.