Directed by Garth Jennings
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a strange little movie. I say “little” despite the fact that earth is blown up in the first 20 minutes, and we spend the rest of the movie flying between different worlds.
The “galaxy” here involves depressed robots, literal thinking caps, galactic presidential candidates, a president with multiple personalities, shape-shifting, omniscient mice, a missile that turns into a sperm whale which is forced to contemplate its place in the universe while it falls to its death, inter-dimensional portals, a gun that changes the point of view of someone its fired at, an Earth backup and somehow still Zooey Deschanel playing a version of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” there to liven up the life of the main character, everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman).
We follow Arthur and his human-looking alien friend Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey/Mos Def) as they find themselves, through a series of extreme improbabilities, onboard a vessel captained by human-ish Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and his co-pilot Trillion (Zooey Deschanel), herself a human.
Through yet another improbability, Arthur had crossed paths with Zaphod and Trillian at a party back on Earth. He fell immediately for Trillian, then going by Tricia, and went so far as to make his phone background a photo of the two of them. The emotional through line of the movie follows this relationship between Arthur and Trillion and Arthur’s need to break free of his own self-imposed restrictions. When they first meet she will ask him to drop everything and go to Madagascar with her. He resists, and that’s that. By the end of the movie he agrees to leave behind Earth 2.0 and travel the galaxy with her.
The plot details a series of mini-adventures that take the crew to new planets and introduces them to various foes. One of them is Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), a sort of half-human whom Zaphod beat in the galactic presidential election because, Humma believes, people choose looks and charm over intelligence. Based on what we know of Zaphod he’s not wrong.
Zaphod is a character I think could be played effectively by a younger Mick Jagger. He just has that rock and roll, carefree vibe. He wears tight clothing and hair down to his shoulders, he’s openly egocentric and could care less about the people around him. He’s charming to a degree, but that wears thin pretty quickly, particularly as his other personality, which presents himself as a second face protruding from the base of his neck, exerts more control.
Their adventures are pretty free of consequence, even as they shape-shift their way through the galaxy in a manner reminiscent of the tv show Rick and Morty. There are in theory life and death stakes, but the movie is more of a comedy than anything and treats all these various antagonists and challenges with a carefree attitude.
Trillian will later learn that Zaphod signed off on the destruction of Earth (to build a new expressway) mistakenly because he believed someone was just giving him something to autograph. He will only come to terms with his mistake (and Trillian’s frustration) when she shoots him with the ‘point of view-shifting’ gun, a tool that will become very handy in the third act climax.
A lot of other stuff happens that I’m probably forgetting, but every story thread and detour somehow gets back to the idea of existentialism. This is a very playful comedy about existential thoughts, seen most directly in the scene where a missile is turned into a sperm whale whose inner thoughts we are privy to as it plummets to certain death and in a side character, a depressed robot named Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman).
Marvin will save the day when he uses the point of view gun to spread his depression to the people trying to kill them. As a result a wave of goblins fall over expressing their suddenly bleak view of the universe.
Another storyline deals with the “ultimate question,” basically what is the meaning behind everything. We see how a group of people went to a computer to ask such a question, then were told to return millions of years later for the answer. When they did, the answer was a disappointing “forty-two.”
At every turn characters look for and fail to find the “answer.” The ultimate resolution to this dilemma takes the romantic subplot between Arthur and Trillian and makes it the answer. It’s a familiar storyline, fairly standard for a movie like this, but Arthur’s commitment to his, I suppose, more carnal interests is a response to the movie’s other questions about what our purpose is and the meaning of everything.
The answer is really just to enjoy what’s in front of you and find meaning in the things and people who present themselves. It’s a carnal answer to a heady question, the same type of resolution as in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and the sort-of remake, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.
Up Next: The Chocolate War (1988), The Land of Steady Habits (2018), The Final Girls (2015)