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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Widescreen Edition

The task of adapting The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been a daunting one. No one this side of Frodo Baggins has as many devoted — nay, rabid — fans as Arthur Dent, the bemused Brit whose interstellar escapades form the backbone of Douglas Adams' absurdist science fiction novels. Having begun life as a radio play, and been adapted for television, Hitchhiker was always destined for the big screen. Arriving in 2005, the result can be judged a qualified success. The music-video veterans known as "Hammer & Tongs" (director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith) bring a gleeful, indulgent insanity to the proceedings, and a visual scheme that stays true to the spirit of Adams' febrile imagination. Casting is key as well. Martin Freeman, beloved by fans of the BBC's The Office, is the perfect choice to play Dent, who escapes Earth only moments before it's destroyed to make way for an interstellar expressway. His savior is Ford Prefect, a well-traveled alien played by Mos Def, whose overly relaxed performance is one of the film's few weak spots. Ford writes for the eponymous galactic guidebook and instructs Arthur in the finer points of space travel, including the many fantastic uses for a towel and the ubiquitous mantra "Don't Panic." Escaping the clutches of the bureaucratic Vogons, Ford and Arthur end up on the spaceship Heart of Gold, where they encounter the Earth girl Tricia McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), better known as Trillian. They also meet the two-headed, three-armed President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, played with hammy ferocity by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell walks off with the film, imbuing Zaphod with a half-baked cowboy nuttiness that comes off as the demon love child of Elvis Presley and George W. Bush. The quartet — assisted by Marvin the Paranoid Android (Warwick Davis in the robot suit, voiced by Alan Rickman) and the Heart of Gold's infinite improbability drive — meets Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), a new character not in any of the previous incarnations but created by Adams, who completed a screenplay draft before his untimely death in 2001. Characters and concepts beloved by fans make it in Hitchhiker's Guide as well, including the massive computer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren), which provides the iconic answer to the ultimate question: 42. One of the best creative decisions was to rely more on practical effects and alien costumes than on snazzy computer animation — it gives the whole thing a charming, almost quaint feel and doesn't waste energy trying to convince an audience that what they're seeing is real. The Vogon costumes, created by the Henson Workshop, are especially well done, as are their voices, provided by the British comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen. The cleverly animated realizations of entries from the Guide add further wit.

Buena Vista's DVD release of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy features a pair of commentary tracks. One includes Jennings, Goldsmith, Freeman, and Bill Nighy, who shows up late in the film as planetary architect Slartibartfast. They pick on Mos Def (who was apparently capable of falling asleep on set), relate various anecdotes from filming, and point out things like Adams' mother's cameo and the hidden Apple Computer logo on Deep Thought. The other commentary is likely of more interest to the book's fans, as Adams' colleague Sean Solle points out the author's substantial contributions to the final film and reflects on his impressive legacy. Other supplemental material includes a deleted Guide entry on the babelfish, which explains why the translating creature disproves the existence of God. A "making-of" featurette (9 min.) focuses on the design of the Vogons, and a pair of deleted scenes (2 min. total) includes the phrase "mostly harmless." More fun are the fake deleted scenes (4 min.), especially one where Freeman takes exception to the director's Rambo-like staging of an action scene. A sing-along version of the song "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" is fun, and an Improbability Drive button on the menu will take you to a randomly chosen spot in the extras. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is flawless, with audio tracks in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 options. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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