Moriarty Gets A Very Early Look At THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2008, 2:21 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
First things first... there’s a new rule that I suggest needs to be amended to the Screen Actor’s Guild MBA: you are required to cast Alan Rickman and Sam Rockwell in any science-fiction comedy ever made. Worked for GALAXY QUEST. Worked again here.
Now... how do I begin?
I could give you the requisite preamble about how important the work of Douglas Adams is to me. I could write about how many of my friendships over the years have been at least partially predicated on a shared affection for the most inaccurately named trilogy of all time. Or I could try to chart all the stuttered starts and stops the film’s gone through in development over the years.
But ultimately, what really matters is the film itself. Is it any good? Will it satisfy fans? Will it play for audiences unfamiliar with the books? I can’t answer that last question... Disney’s marketing department is going to have to do that... but I can tell you that I thought the film was a glorious shambling tribute to the work of Adams, a beautifully realized vision filled to the brim with quirky performances and hilarious details. It’s almost shockingly eccentric and manages to stay very faithful to the spirit of all the previous incarnations of the story while also contributing some fascinating new ideas to the overall mythos.
Also, let’s be clear about something. This is not a final or a formal review by any means. I’ve seen a lot of test screenings since moving to LA over a decade ago, but this was one of the most unfinished in many ways. With a comedy, fine-tuning is everything, and I saw Jay Roach at the screening, making notes. I saw the first two AUSTIN POWERS films at test screenings, more than once, and I watched how he really polished those movies as they got closer and closer to release. It’s encouraging to see that he’s involved in the process, right there alongside director Garth Jennings.
I know they’re both big fans of the property, and they want to get it right, and there’s still time to sort things out. The cut we saw on Thursday night was particularly rough in the first twenty minutes or so, and I’d like to see them give the film a little more room to breathe at the start. There are some details that either felt rushed or that were missing altogether that can really help fill in the texture of a film. For example, we don’t hear the specifics of why Ford was on Earth, and, most noticeably, we never hear the entry that exists in the Guide about the planet Earth. I understand... you’re trying to get down to the business of getting Ford and Arthur off the planet, but if you lose all those little details up front, it feels too frantic. Sell the sense of humor more. Seduce us a bit before we plunge headlong into the story.
Actually, the very start of the film is one of the things that made me love this movie. It’s an explanation of dolphins and their attempts to warn us about the impending destruction of Earth, all spoken over footage of dolphins doing tricks in front of crowds. This leads into a musical number, over which the opening titles play. The song, sung by the dolphins, “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish,” is one of the few pieces of original score that was ready for the screening, and it’s damn funny stuff. I’m very curious now to hear what Joby Talbot’s score sounds like, because that’ll be a big part of that fine-tuning the film still needs.
One of the things that matters most in this film is chemistry. HHGTTG has always been about the friction between all these great crazy characters that Adams created. More than the specific situations that they were in, it was the way they all related that I always found so entertaining. Everything starts with Ford and Arthur, and so much of the weight of the movie rests on how well Mos Def and Martin Freeman work together. I know that Mos was a controversial choice for many fans, and it disheartens me to see how many of the slams against him seem to dismiss the guy as “some rapper.” He’s a monstrously gifted stage actor and he’s got dramatic chops to spare. If you haven’t seen his work yet, that’s your fault, not his. He was great in SOMETHING THE LORD MADE, he’s got one scene that is unforgettable in the middle of the otherwise-mediocre THE WOODSMAN, and he was the one funny thing in the remake of THE ITALIAN JOB.
Seriously, if you don’t like him after seeing his work, that’s one thing, but there’s something smarmy and distasteful about the way he’s been attacked because of his color. It’s that ugly side of fanboy culture that people try to laugh off, but it’s hard to defend against charges of racism when people fly off the handle the moment a black actor gets cast in something. For me, Ford Prefect needs to be cool, first and foremost. He’s got to be unflappable. This is a guy who travels the galaxy collecting information and experiences and then writing it all up for the Guide. He’s seen it all. He’s got to be centered enough for two people, since he’s traveling with Arthur Dent, who’s about as flappable as they come. Mos ends up being, to my mind, an inspired choice. He’s not playing it broad or obvious. It’s not an over the top “comedy” performance. He’s got a delivery and a rhythm all his own, and he gets more than his fair share of laughs. He makes a really nice foil for Freeman, who was always so good on THE OFFICE. You may recognize a little bit of his Tim in the way he plays Arthur, at least at first, but there are some really important distinctions. Arthur’s nowhere near as cool as Tim. He’s rarely in control of himself. Arthur is the eyes and ears of the audience, and as he learns things, we learn them. As a result, he stays deeply discombobulated through most of the film, and there is something magnificent about that big cartoon balloon head of Freeman’s. He plays frustrated beautifully, and those moments where it all finally gets to be too much are hilarious.
And then there’s Sam Rockwell. Sam’s one of those guys who makes a movie better simply by showing up. Any movie. So giving him a great, freaky comedy character like Zaphod Beeblebrox is a gift, both for him and for the audience. He’s a totally different kind of cool than Ford Prefect, all manic energy and big dick rock star swagger, and he makes a perfect entrance in the film. It’s during a flashback as Arthur tells Ford about how he met this amazing girl, Tricia McMillan, at a party. Zaphod comes barging into their conversation with the best pick-up line ever: “Hi, is this guy boring you? I’m from another planet. Wanna see my spaceship?”
Honestly... Arthur never stands a chance.
There’s only one person who can steal a scene from Sam Rockwell, and that’s Sam Rockwell. The way they decided to handle Zaphod’s second head is more than just a clever way of keeping the budget down. As Zaphod explains, when he was elected President of the Galaxy, he was told that he was going to have to give up half his brain, since no President is allowed to have a whole one. Zaphod wanted to keep the excised bits close, so had the second head crafted and hidden under the first one. The parts of his brain they put into the second head are the unbridled libido... the temper... all the most volatile pieces of his personality. When that second head comes rolling up, someone’s likely to get punched in the face or some button that shouldn’t be pushed is going to get pushed or something’s going to get stolen. The effect is groovy, but more importantly, it’s character-driven. It’s not just a cheap excuse for a CGI gag, as so many effects seem to be these days.
Zooey Deschanel is an odd choice for Trillian at first glance. She’s not English and she isn’t known for sharp-tongued comedy. But the film’s Trillian is probably the most re-imagined character, and Zooey ends up being a perfect fit for this particular version. That flashback scene I mentioned earlier... the one where she meets Arthur at the party... is sort of a verbal sparring match where she’s testing him. She likes him right away, but she’s looking for a kindred spirit, someone with a sense of adventure equal to hers. When he finally catches up with her again onboard the HEART OF GOLD, it makes perfect sense that she’d be there. She explains it to him in a way that even he can’t argue with. One thing I’ve heard over the years as a criticism of HHGTTG is that it’s too glib to count, that you never actually care about any of the people, so you can never actually invest in the story. Douglas Adams and his co-writer, Karey Kirkpatrick, have turned up the attraction between Arthur and Trillian in a way that both makes the film more accessible to new audiences and also gives you a real rooting interest, an overall arc to the piece. And don’t panic... it doesn’t overpower the film. All it does is humnanize these outrageous characters a bit. Zooey’s got one great moment, where she’s just found the Point-Of-View gun (a very funny, if underutilized, new device created for the film) that once again proves that she’s an original presence, one the film benefits from enormously.
Some of the most important performances in the film are by people who we never see on-camera. Stephen Fry is perfect as The Guide, and if I have any major complaint about this cut, it’s that we don’t get enough of him. Take a step back from the demands of the studio or set aside the worries about mainstream appeal or conventional storytelling rules and just remember for a moment... the film is called THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. The single greatest notion in the entire career of Douglas Adams as a writer was the creation of the Guide. It’s a spectacular device for both exposition and comedy. Utilize it. Please... don’t trim the film so tight that you lose the wonderful digression of the Guide. As it is, the segments that are in the film right now are really well-realized, using animation with just the right comic sensibility. Many of the Guide segments are word-for-word translations from previous incarnations of the story, including the Babel Fish explanation and the bit about the Vogons. Fry’s narration is absolutely spot-on in terms of delivery. Equally good is the way Alan Rickman gives voice to Marvin, one of the most enduringly beloved characters from the series. Rickman communicates just the right mix of depression and disdain, and there’s something brilliant about that voice coming out of that body. He looks like something Steve Jobs would sell, but there’s this jet-black morose world view that seems almost directly opposed to his appearance. I think they use Marvin just right, resisting the urge to make him the star of the film, and the way they use him during the climax of the movie is particularly funny.
Mixing science-fiction and comedy is a difficult thing, especially in the big-budget world. When a studio makes a science-fiction film, they’re normally really making an action film and just dressing it up with special effects. They’re expensive films, and action sells better around the world than comedy does. That’s just a fact. It translates better. It’s easier. When they do make science-fiction comedies, they tend to be fairly low-rent affairs like SPACEBALLS or TV fare like RED DWARF. One of the great pleasures of this film is the rich visual wit that Garth Jennings brings to it. This is a gorgeous movie, packed with eccentric detail in every frame. For the most part, Jennings is working with a production team that’s new to feature films, and it feels like they’re all trying to prove something.
Igor Jadue-Lillo’s cinematography is impressive, rich and colorful in all the right places, but not afraid to be grimy. Production designer Joel Collins and the entire art department have created a world that’s always interesting and frequently hysterical. Their work makes me think of Terry Gilliam’s movies, TIME BANDITS and BRAZIL in particular. There’s a great handmade quality to everything. There’s so much imagination on display that I know I’ll need to see the film a second time or even a third, just to get it all. What we saw wasn’t finished by any means, but I can tell you already that the tour of the factory floor on Magrathea is one of the most amazing things you’ll see in a film this year. It’s very funny, but it’s also an oddly moving tribute to the sheer beauty of our planet, made even more poignant by the performance of Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. Nighy’s really hit his stride in the last few years, and even though he doesn’t have a huge role here, he manages to play a lot of levels underneath the surface silliness. He’s the perfect tour guide for this section of the film. As lovely as Magrathea is, everything involving the Vogons is that ugly times five, including the Vogons themselves. Hats off to the wizards at the Henson Shop, because these are the best animatronic characters since Audrey II in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. The articulation on their faces is amazing, and they’ve got personality to spare. I’m sorry... I mean, Vogonality. The poetry scene is a thing of twisted beauty, and I love Questular Rontok (Anna Chancellor) trying to deal with the bureaucratic mindset of the Vogons in the midst of an intergalactic pursuit.
Did I have any problems with the film? Yeah. At this stage, there are some things that just don’t work. As I said, the first act felt rushed to the point of confusion. If I wasn’t so familiar with the material, it would have been too choppy to follow, and I don’t think they’ve nailed the rhythm yet. The bigger problem stems from the subplot involving Humma Kavula, a deranged religious leader played by John Malkovich. He’s an interesting new character, and there’s no doubt that Malkovich plays him well. He find just the right balance of malice and madness, and he makes the character both creepy and funny. But all the stuff that’s set up in Kavula’s first scene is abandoned, evidently, and as a result, there’s a tension that seems to be missing from the third act, questions that go completely unanswered.
What did he want the Point-Of-View gun for? How did he know where it was? What did he plan to do with it? What about Zaphod’s head and arm? Shouldn’t Zaphod try to rescue them? What made Kavula look the way he does in the first place?
The missed narrative opportunites here are going to be the greatest frustration for filmgoers. It’s a shame, too, because everything else in the third act is great. The Arthur/Trillian story has a surprisingly sweet and satisfying conclusion, and overall, there’s something wonderful about the way the film wraps up. My co-writer Scott described it as an inverse WIZARD OF OZ, where Dorothy finally makes it back to Kansas only to realize that living in black-and-white sucks. Oz is, simply put, more fun.
Still, these are minor complaints. I’m being selfish when I say that I want this film to be perfect, and I want it to be a massive success. I want to see THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE with this same cast and this same director. Any film with a scene as surreal and lovely as the bit with the sperm whale (voiced perfectly by Bill Bailey) might be too strange for a crossover audience, but it hits me square in the pleasure center. It’s obvious that this is a love letter to fans of the series overall, with touches like the use of “Journey of the Sorceror” at just the right moment or the appearances by Simon Jones asn the original Marvin from the TV show, or that final heartbreaking leap into Improbability Warp by the HEART OF GOLD. The film is wonderfully weird. Remember those images of the toys that appeared at CHUD the other day? You know those plushie versions? Well, they’re actually in the film. Arthur vomits yarn. Try to wrap your head around that one.
I’m going to cross my fingers just as hard as Disney is and hope that filmgoers are ready for something this strange and that we’ll get more. One thing’s for sure... Douglas Adams would be very proud. In the end, that’s the greatest success that Robbie Stamp and Spyglass Entertainment and Jay Roach and Touchstone could have hoped for. I look forward to seeing the final cut as we get closer to May. Until then...