The problem with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is that only the first third of it is really any good — but that third is near perfect. The film opens in almost exactly the same way as the 1981 BBC version, as well as the book and the radio show it was based on — with the superlatively average Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, “The Office”) waking up to find a wrecking crew poised to demolish his house to make way for a bypass. Soon after, his buddy Ford Prefect (rapper/actor Mos Def) arrives, telling him that, well, he’s not really from Earth but from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. And another wrecking crew — this one a fleet of alien destroyers — is about to demolish his planet. Arthur and Ford, who is a writer for galactic bestseller “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” stick out their thumbs and are picked up by one of the alien ships seconds before Earth is destroyed. Arthur’s journey into the rest of the universe begins here — but it’s also where the film starts to lag.

After falling victim to a poetry reading by the Vogons, the aliens whose craft they’re hitching a ride on, Ford and Arthur are picked up yet again — this time by President of the Galaxy/party animal Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, “Matchstick Men”) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, “Almost Famous”), a girl Arthur had met at a party on Earth only a week before. Zaphod has stolen the Heart of Gold, a spaceship that boasts the newly-developed Infinite Improbability Drive.

The addition of Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), Beeblebrox’s opponent in the last galactic election, presents the film with a problem that can be dealt with in its 108 minutes. Kavula holds information about the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, the learning of which suddenly becomes the shallow, self-centered Zaphod’s fixation. In turn, Kavula demands that Zaphod and co. pick up a mysterious gun for him. While an attempt to encapsulate the events of the first book in the “Hitchhiker’s” series could have been a disaster,

this invention simply sends the cadre on a tedious story arc that leads nowhere.

But perhaps the remake’s worst aspect is its transformation into a love story. Disney may have wanted to sanitize the dark, sometimes ribald humor of the original story; the book’s constant reminders of human insignificance and the incomprehensible scope of the universe are disregarded to focus on the pithy romance between last remaining humans Trillian and Arthur.

The performers (Mos Def and Rockwell especially) excel in their roles, and the special effects are sleek, understated and appropriately absurd. But many fans’ faith was inspired by reassurances that Adams himself had taken part in the remake’s writing and development until his death in 2001. For his sake, it’s happy that the project reached audiences at least close to the way he intended — but many elements, including a few changes made by Adams specifically for the remake, simply don’t work.

 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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