"Don't panic" may be the motto of the universal travel book that gives Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy its name, but the new big-screen adaptation frequently feels on the verge of freaking out. Adams co-wrote the script before his untimely death in 2001, but director Garth Jennings stays more faithful to the letter of the book than its breezy spirit. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy retains plenty of the book's way-out sequences, but the film seldom finds that wry British understatement that makes them funny. Adams' admirers may be pleased, but the uninitiated will feel lost in space.
Martin Freeman, who played lovelorn Tim on BBC's "The Office," certainly looks the part of lovelorn Arthur Dent, whose house gets demolished for an automotive bypass. Dent can't mourn for long, though: Minutes later, alien developers atomize the Earth to make way for an interstellar thoroughfare. But Arthur thumbs a ride with a passing spacecraft thanks to his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who turns out to be an alien stringer for the guide.
Jokes fly at the audience at warp speed during Arthur's trek through the stars. Just when we're trying to sort out a gag about, say, the horrible poetry written by the repugnant, bureaucratic Vogons, we're launched into another bit about the abuses of intergalactic presidential politics. Guide's frenetic pace undermines its deadpan humor: Ford insists that Arthur bring a towel across the universe, but he never explains why.
Though the plot involves pursuing the answers to "life, the universe and everything," the film rarely pauses long enough for its playfully philosophical ideas to sink in. The lead actors loudly compete with the outlandish situations and special effects, rather than comically deflate them with straight faces. There's a funny Elvis Presley/Bill Clinton impression somewhere in Sam Rockwell's performance as rash galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, but it's nearly incoherent beneath Rockwell's rushed delivery and the digital sight gags.
Guide contains a charming love triangle between flamboyant Zaphod, cautious Arthur and impulsive Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), the last single Earth woman in the universe. Whenever the film lingers enough for the audience to catch up, it provides some delightful moments. John Malkovich leads a church service of a religion based on sneezes. Love Actually's Bill Nighy shows off a planetary construction site with an amusing blend of pride and self-effacement. Stephen Fry provides the Guide's blithe voice in quirky animated interludes that reveal universal truths.
Guide's visual design remains one of its best features. Some of Terry Gilliam's influence is apparent in the threadbare suits and filthy ships of the Vogons, the galaxy's most sclerotic civil servants. Zaphod's stolen starship, powered by the "Improbability Drive," causes surreal space warps, like changing its crew into sock puppets. But Marvin the Paranoid Android, voiced with sepulchral gloom by Alan Rickman, looks disappointingly like a cheap cybernetic toy you'd find at a flea market.
Guide features some morbid slapstick, like blowing up planets for laughs, but overall it turns out to be a tender act of love. From the splashy opening song "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" (the title of trilogy's fourth book) to the dedication "For Douglas" in the closing credits, Guide bursts with affection for the author, his books and the 1981 BBC adaptation (which gets many homages on-screen).
It's a shame that Jennings' film retains so many of Adams' one-liners, like "time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so," but only sporadically finds the cinematic equivalent to the author's chummy prose style. Audiences entering this galaxy for the first time probably hit their panic buttons.