Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Awe-inspiring Beauty of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

A couple nights ago I re-watched the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie on DVD and was reminded of something that I hadn't thought about since I saw it in the theatre in 2005. Despite the fact that I had never read the book, heard the radio show nor seen the BBC-TV mini-series, and had virtually no knowledge whatsoever of the stories, characters and worlds created by Douglas Adams ("42" was really all I knew going into the movie), the film looked intriguing to me so I was willing to give it a try. Incidentally, sometimes I feel that knowing nothing about a film prior to seeing it is actually preferable (I saw The Usual Suspects and The Fisher King in this manner) because one has no expectations and is more or less willing to go wherever a film takes them.

Anyway, I rather liked it. It was not without its flaws, of course, but I thought it was clever, humorous--in that very dry, British way--and actually kind of "cool" too (sort of Monty Python meets Men in Black). Some folks have said the movie changed the book so drastically that it doesn't even qualify as a "real" adaptation whereas others have said that the filmmakers at least captured the spirit of the books. Since, as I said before, I never read the book, I had nothing with which to compare it. I was only evaluating it as a movie and from that perspective, I thought it was pretty good. I'm not sure that I "got" everything in it since there were moments that didn't particularly strike me as funny (just odd and/or random) but 1/3 of the audience would laugh hysterically. I realized that these individuals were familiar with the previous incarnations of the story and were watching a whole different movie than I was.

One of the aspects of the film that I particularly enjoyed was the quirky, but very striking, aesthetic that the filmmakers adopted (alien creatures with massive bodies but long, thin little arms; spaceships consctructed in the simple, but still unusual-looking, shapes of cubes and spheres, etc). It fit with the eccentric nature of the story and consequently ended up looking like few sci-fi films I had ever seen before. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was a sequence that would actually provide one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I would have in a theatre in a long time (SPOILERS FOLLOW).

It begins with the character Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) being stranded on a frozen planet with Marvin (played by Warwick Davis, voiced by Alan Rickman) lamenting the fact that he's going to die lost and alone with a "manically-depressed robot," when a stranger named Slartibartfast (the great Bill Nighy) shows up and asks Arthur to accompany him. He takes him to a room where a number of glass cases display models of custom-designed planets made by the company which Nighy works for.

It should probably be mentioned that by this point in the story the Earth and everything on it has been destroyed (Arthur and a woman played by Zooey Deschanel are the last surviving humans; not a pleasant prospect I know) and it has been revealed that although it was scheduled for demolition anyway (to create an intergalactic bypass), it was authorized by the President of the Galaxy (the fantastic Sam Rockwell) who didn't even bother to read the order before signing it. Apprently he thought it was someone wanting an autograph. Admittedly, this is a hysterical concept but it is also, quite frankly, rather depressing. As I sat in the theatre I found myself not finding the idea that my home planet was destroyed because of a paperwork error that funny anymore. At least when Lucas blew up Alderan in Star Wars there was a deliberacy, a malicious intent behind its dsetruction, and the ones who did it were going to be made to pay before the film was over.

Anyway, Arthur and Slarti climb into a yellow mechanical lift which slowly moves through a door into a tunnel (amusingly, just as another one is arriving through another door like a ride at Disneyland) and down a tunnel. As it rather quickly gains speed, Arthur starts to get afraid and Slatri tries to prepare him for what he's about to see, but neither Arthur nor I could've possibly been ready. In a few short seconds the lift passes out of the tunnel and one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful sights I've ever seen on the silver screen appeared.

Arthur uncovers his eyes and is so awe-struck by what is all around him that he becomes visibly moved. Slarti laughs and exclaims "Welcome to our factory floor!" as they continue to move through the massive chunks of whole worlds being built.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Pixar's Finding Nemo that the film had "an unexpected beauty, a use of color and form that makes it one of those rare movies where I wanted to sit in the front row and let the images wash out to the edges of my field of vision." That's how I felt at this moment watching Hitchhiker's Guide.

Soon, Slarti says to Arthur "Look familiar?" Arthur turns and sees...

...the Earth.

Slarti explians that this isn't the "real" Earth but actually their back-up planet ("Earth Mark 2") and what follows is a series of funny, and sort of sweet, images of Slarti's crew "finishing" the Earth (filling the oceans with water, painting canyon rocks, etc). Now, I don't mind confessing that at this point I actually got a little emotional. I had resigned myself to the fact that, in the universe of the movie, the earth had been destroyed and wasn't coming back. So to see it again was not only pleasantly surprising but bizarrely touching. I guess the saying is true that we never really know how much we value something until it's gone. I find it sort of ironic that Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy accomplished in a matter of seconds, with a few well-executed special effects and a great music score by composer Joby Talbot, what it took the entire documentary of An Inconvenient Truth to do... for me anyway.

I realize, of course, that a few small stills cannot possibly capture the power of these moving images (nor, I would argue, could watching the film on DVD even). To fully appreciate it in all its glory I think one would have to see it on the big screen and not know that it's coming... as I did. Every now and again it's good to be reminded of why movies are meant to be seen in the theatre. Sometimes the spectacle is the movie and there are some cinematic experiences that just can't be felt or properly appreciated otherwise. This scene in Hitchhiker's Guide is, I would argue, just such a moment. I was too young (only a year old) to see the original Star Wars when it was released and by the time I did get to see it on the big screen (after watching it on video so many times) the opening image of the giant ship passing overhead had become such a part of our culture that it virtually lost its impact. Still, I hear people tell stories of seeing that film when it was released and being utterly blown away by that shot. The best I can do I guess is try to imagine what it might've felt like, but if the sensation was anything like what I experienced at that moment in Hitchhiker's Guide, it must've been magnificent and awe-inspiring.


akrizman said...

Credit Jim Henson's Creature Shop for the visually stunning artistic design on this film. These folks have created some of the most gorgeous sci-fi and fantasy film and television I've ever seen (although often they're the only worthwhile part of the whole project)

I particularly love their work on MirrorMask, Farscape, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal.

J.D. said...

I LOVE this movie.

Damian said...

I didn't know that, Akrizman, but that makes a lot of sense. The Vogon creatures in particular looked like something that would come from Henson's Creature Shop.

I like the movie too, J.D. :)

OKonheim said...

I liked but didn't love Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but what I do love is your review.

It has a great deal of honesty to it and I think few reviewers are brave enough to admit when a movie affects them emotionally in a way that others might find laughable.

Damian said...

Thanks, Okenheim. I appreciate it. :)

Interestingly enough, I talked to a couple friends of mine about that sequence (as well as the final montage where "life begins again" on Earth) and they admitted that they had similar reactions to it--though theirs was perhaps not as potent as mine--but were also somewhat embarassed to admit it. I think that creating that sensation was, at least in part, the intent of the filmmakers.

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