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Loopy brilliance: Rockwell in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a Silly Universe, Really
By Laura Leon

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Directed by Garth Jennings

No doubt there will be le- gions of Douglas Adams fanatics out there who will find fault with each and every facet of the new movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These are the sort of fans for whom nothing less than absolute literal translation is acceptable, and who, truth be told, probably know far too much about the Hitchhiker radio series, novel, play, even computer game, on which Adams built his cult phenomenon. I am reminded of too many RPI students I used to know who would take up residence at tables in the Rathskeller, pizzas, beers and materials textbooks at hand, to watch what seemed like a continuous loop of original Star Trek episodes. The thing was, as I discovered one eerie night, the sound wouldn’t be on, and yet the students would be mouthing the dialogue. . . . If you spoke aloud, you were hushed in a way that left no doubt: These geeks meant business.

So, like those Trekkies, there will be much gnashing of teeth by Adams fans who have carried the torch for so long, through the untimely death of Adams a few years ago at the tender age of 49, to see the cinematic culmination of their admiration. Then again, for the non-Adams initiates, there might be some wonderment, glee and downright confusion. Any way you look at it, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is directed by Garth Jennings, is a sort of celluloid lightning bolt.

Let’s just say that if you don’t get too bogged down trying to piece together a completely coherent plot, you should be thoroughly entertained and kept slightly off-balance. Mopey Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is just about to lose his house to the progress of super byways when his friend, Ford Perfect (Mos Def) drags him along for an intergalactic ride; just in time, too, since the world is being destroyed courtesy of the whims of one President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). After battling it out with the dreadfully bureaucratic Vogons, created masterfully by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Arthur and Ford actually come into contact with Zaphod, who just so happens to be traveling with Trillion (Zooey Deschanel), the girl poor Arthur let get away back when there was an Earth. The four band together, along with a perpetually depressed robot named Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman), in search of, well, all sorts of odds and ends, but mostly, for the meaning of life, the universe and everything. This brings them into wild adventures with a giant computer (voiced by Helen Mirren), Zaphod’s disgruntled former political rival (John Malkovich), white mice, point-of-view guns and what-have-you.

Centering the chaotic story are strong performances, particularly by Def, who imbues Ford with a balletic grace alongside a cunning wit, and Rockwell, who seems to be channeling a certain Texas-by-way-of-Yale cowboy. There’s a loopy brilliance to their riffs, a looseness that seems both natural and inspired, a definite counterbalance to the too-studied cool of so many movies these days. Freeman, with his elastic features and stuttering cadences, is an amiable everyman, and Deschanel once again scores with an appealing blend of brains and innocence.

Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, who shares that credit with the late Adams, has done an honorable job of translating what would seem patently untranslatable. The movie, like the book, is goofy and ambling, employing quite a few visual techniques without making it seem like it’s solely for the purpose of techno wizardry. And while it may lack the sense of urgency that so many films actually need, Hitchhiker deftly uses its relaxed pace and unstudied hipness to evoke the quasi-spiritual nature of the Adams books, and in that way, fans and fanatics alike should find peace.

Once Was Talented

XXX: State of the Union

Directed by Lee Tamahori

With the silly, creaky XXX: State of the Union, director Lee Tamahori is scraping bottom. Once a promising talent from New Zealand (Once Were Warriors), Tamahori quickly went Hollywood, hiring out to The Edge and Die Another Day. Yet despite his experience with franchise actioners, Tamahori is a total dud with this sequel to the cheeky, flashy Vin Diesel vehicle XXX, which at least had some nifty action sequences and a new point of view: Positing a man of color (OK, a man of some color) as a new-model James Bond. State of the Union goes further, promoting a black man, played by Ice Cube, to the position of XXX, rogue operative for the NSA. But with his stubbornly endomorphic physique and cuddly face, Cube just ain’t action-hero material, no matter how deeply he furrows his brow into a scowl. And his growling line readings quickly become tiresome, since he only has two facial expressions: annoyed, and more annoyed.

Xander, Diesel’s insouciant daredevil-turned-agent in the original, got himself killed on duty (that’s code for Diesel turning down the sequel), necessitating the recruitment of a new agent, Cube’s Darius Stone, who is ready, able, and willing “to go off the grid.” The ability to go off the grid—which is apparently the physical equivalent of “thinking outside the box”—is highly prized in State of the Union, but for all its talk of anarchy and attitude, the film is numbingly formulaic (and if sheer bitchiness were all that’s required, why not just hire Lil’ Kim?).

Aside from a total disregard for logic, the only twist to the plot is that the espionage is domestic. When terrorists invade a secret NSA headquarters, renegade Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, reprising his role from the original) suspects an internal subterfuge. So he springs Darius out of prison, where he’s been sharpening his attitude for nine years following a court marshal for insubordination. The film sets Stone and his homies from the mean streets of D.C. against the right-wing tightasses at the Pentagon. The lead tightass, and a possible saboteur, is a Rummy-like general played by Willem Dafoe. The general is in conflict with his dovish commander-in-chief; the president is played by senatorial ’70s character actor Peter Strauss, who is back in fine form (so fine, in fact, that in a fistfight between Strauss and Harrison Ford as the president in Air Force One, the smart money would be on Strauss).

There’s an amusing (in concept at least) tank jacking by a chop-shop crew, but mostly the film misses the opportunity to have some fun with the notion that the disreputable, inner-city minorities that Darius enlists to defend the White House are the same demographic that have always defended America’s security—usually by serving as cannon fodder. The dialogue is so lame and obtuse that even the verbal duels between Jackson and Dafoe—two of the most intimidating voices in Hollywood—are not quite the auditory pleasures that they should’ve been. None of this would matter if the action were up to the brainless but thrilling standards of the original, but it’s not. The climactic sequence puts Darius behind the wheel at 200 mph along the Potomac in a laughably junky CGI homage to video gamers that will leave all other audience members yawning. The only thing going off the grid in State of the Union is Tamahori’s career.

—Ann Morrow

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