In 2005, Douglas Adams’ seminal sci-fi comedy got an admirably flawed adaptation that feels remarkably out of time in a modern sci-fi blockbuster landscape.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was always going to be a curiosity. How could it not? A film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ seminal science fiction text would be a peculiar creature given how the books were full of unorthodox details. What other sci-fi novel would make towels a crucial object or pause for lengthy comical explanations of its in-universe mythology? Translating those kinds of eccentric details into a film meant it was always going to be an oddball production.
But Hitchhiker’s ended up being more of an unusual concoction than it could have ever imagined. Thanks to external forces far beyond its control, Hitchhiker’s became an exception to the norm not just in its own cinematic landscape of 2005, but our own in 2020.
Galaxy was one of the last big releases from Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s label for adult-skewing movies for thirty years. In its final years, Touchstone would shift over to releasing low-budget comedies like Wild Hogs and The Proposal. In the context of 2020 filmmaking, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also serves as a reminder that once upon a time, mid-budget science-fiction storytelling wasn’t a rare sight on the big screen.
Today, sci-fi is sharply divided into two camps: expensive franchise fare and scrappy indies. The circumstances of sci-fi filmmaking were far different in 2005; movies like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could get $50 million to tell a story set in the cosmos without worrying about setting up a famous franchise (though Adams penned plenty of sequels books to adapt if Hitchhiker’s proved a hit).
It’s hard to imagine Hitchhiker’s or similar mid-budget sci-fi romps like Galaxy Quest existing in the blockbuster-focused theatrical space of 2020. Then again, it didn’t quite belong in its own time, either; Hitchhiker’s heavily comedic, self-aware tone were as out of place in the pop culture zeitgeist as old-fashioned musicals like Hello, Dolly! were at the tail end of the 1960s. Purists resented it for Americanizing Adams’ dry British wit, and it was too weird and inaccessible for mainstream audiences.
What’s more, the American blockbusters of 2005 had embraced darkness. Star Wars and Harry Potter both released their first entries (Revenge of the Sith and Goblet of Fire, respectively) in PG-13. Batman was reborn under the grim direction of Christopher Nolan. Even Steven Spielberg made a movie (War of the Worlds) where aliens come to Earth not to establish contact but to wipe out humanity. These lucrative titles were a shining example of the type of morose material audiences were flocking to. Hitchhiker’s, and its jokes about the awfulness of Vogon poetry, ran directly counter to that tone.
Purists resented it for Americanizing Adams’ dry British wit, and it was too weird and inaccessible for mainstream audiences.
Whether context it’s placed in, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be a deviation from the norm for big-screen science fiction releases. But the modern-day pop culture landscape has managed to catch up to a number of key elements. For one thing, its tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign feels extremely ahead of its time. This is particularly true of the iconic teaser trailer, which featured Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World playing over tranquil shots of Earth. Just as the song is about to end, the Earth explodes in a violent fashion only to briefly freeze for the on-screen text “DON’T PANIC” to appear on-screen.
It’s the kind of self-aware marketing material movies like Deadpool and Thor: Ragnarok easily traffic in; in 2005, though, that felt droll and risky.
Hitchhiker’s heavy emphasis on practical effects similarly feels like a product of pop culture circa 2020. Though originally released in an era where the Star Wars prequels made use of discernibly artificial CGI sets and characters, Hitchhiker’s, with its practical Marvin the Paranoid Androids and tactile aliens, feels right at home in the modern pop culture milieu. The new Star Wars movies and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, for instance, have rekindled interest in the kind of old-fashioned visual effects techniques that Hitchhiker’s revels in.
But nothing has aged better than the film’s pitch-perfect cast, Jennings being lucky enough to snag a couple of future A-listers in his roster. Martin Freeman scored his first lead film role with Hitchhiker’s and, as the last fifteen years have shown, it would be far from his last. Freeman’s ability to work as an everyman caught up in larger-than-life struggles in Wakanda, Middle-Earth and his old hometown taken over by robots would make him a movie star.
And then there’s Sam Rockwell, who instills the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox with the kind of roguish swagger he’s played throughout his career. He also delivers the kind of overt George W. Bush impression that would later garner him an Oscar nod for Vice. Rockwell’s smarmy charm was fully alit in his work, and thankfully plenty of movies since then have managed to utilize his talents.
Audiences didn’t flock to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its initial theatrical release; it was light, weird, and too hard to pin down. Lord knows there’s no sequel coming. But despite its deep flaws as a film, there’s a lot to love, from its great pre-fame cast to the earnest attempt to capture Adams’ intergalactically dry wit. It may have been a missed opportunity, but looking back on it fifteen years on, we have no choice but to wave wistfully back at it and say, “so long, and thanks for all the fish.”