Undoubtedly the most beloved piece of fiction to open with the complete destruction of Earth, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy has been a radio program, a series of novels, a TV miniseries, and a video game, proving remarkably adaptable in each medium. When holograms and virtual-reality programming become commonplace, it will probably resurface there as well. In some respects, it's an odd piece of work to have found immortality in so many different mediums. A product of a particular time and sensibility, it's pretty much an exact cross between the concept-heavy science-fiction adventures of Dr. Who and the dry absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus. (No surprise, since Adams wrote for both shows.) On the other hand, Adams' frustrated everyman humor and sweet, slightly despairing humanism haven't aged a bit. So long as a new generation of fans needs to be told "There's no need to panic, because in the end, we're all equally screwed," Hitchhiker's has a built-in audience. Initiated well before Adams' 2001 death, this long-in-production film version seems unlikely to interrupt that pattern. It's true in tone and spirit to Adams' novel, and that faithfulness counts for a lot. Not every moment works, particularly in the draggy middle section, but the spirit of the thing still carries it along.
The film begins, of course, at the end, with Earth slated for immediate destruction at the hands of interstellar bureaucrats. Clad in a bathrobe and still groggy from the night before, Martin Freeman (wearing the weary expression familiar to viewers of The Office) is unexpectedly rescued from certain death by his best friend, undercover alien travel-writer Mos Def. Eventually they join forces with addled space pirate/galactic ruler Sam Rockwell, his girlfriend Zooey Deschanel (another survivor of Earth and the recent object of Freeman's desire), and a manic-depressive robot voiced by Alan Rickman and operated by Warwick Davis. Together, they embark on a journey that eventually takes them in search of the question to life's ultimate answer.
Helming his first feature, commercial and video director Garth Jennings of the filmmaking team Hammer & Tongs—his teammate Nick Goldsmith produces—occasionally opts for more flash than the film needs, but mostly gives the subtler jokes breathing room. The alien creatures, for instance, owe as much to the cheap rubber suits of 1970s BBC programming as they owe to state-of-the-art costume design, and while Def never quite gets around to explaining why towels are the most useful object a space traveler can have, the film never wastes an opportunity to illustrate their many uses. The cast proves as good in practice as it looks on paper, with Rockwell a particular standout. As usual, he steals scenes, but in a different way than in previous films: Here, he charges stupidly into each adventure with an irrepressible enthusiasm and a twanged, giggly diction that sounds a bit like George W. Bush crossed with a space surfer.
Following Adams' episodic approach to storytelling, Jennings' Hitchhiker's suffers only from an occasional lack of dramatic snap. But any film willing to turn its cast into yarn for a laugh gets a free pass. And any Hitchhiker's adaptation as committed to ending on a note that weighs laughs against pathos—the balance that's the real reason for Adams' continued popularity—gets more than one.