For a certain portion of the population, the admonition ”Don’t panic!” is a coded invitation to join a cult of like-minded fans devoted to the Monty Python-adjacent universe of science fiction and existential tomfoolery created by the daft-genius British writer Douglas Adams. And for them (or should I say, for us), the appearance of the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (as opposed to the original 1978 BBC radio version, followed by the 1979 book version, the 1981 BBC television version, and the 1984 videogame version) four years after Adams’ death of a heart attack at the age of 49 is like an eerie time-warped greeting from a distant galaxy: The thing feels sweetly familiar but a bit frayed around the heat shields as it re-enters our atmosphere. For all others, the nutty, fitfully charming production, with its Pee-wee’s Playhouse visual aesthetic, androidish pacing, and idiot-proof overdelight in itself, may bemuse rather than cause a powerful disturbance in the force.
Here again is Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, quintessential drone from the BBC’s The Office now playing a quintessential blinkered Englishman who is cousin in obliviousness to Shaun in Shaun of the Dead), whose house is about to be bulldozed for the creation of an English freeway. Arthur is rescued, moments before Earth itself is bulldozed, by his pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def), who turns out to be not-so-carbon-based after all, hailing from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Simply by sticking out his thumb to snag a ride on a passing spaceship, Ford introduces his human friend to the secrets of a really really big cosmos that bears a hilarious resemblance to everyday earthly life, with a few modifications. Among them: The president of the galaxy (a hyperdriven Sam Rockwell) has two heads; the sour-tempered civil servants who jam the bureaucracy are lumpish, pickle-skinned creatures (created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) from the planet Vogosphere; and the smartest creatures in the universe aren’t the humans who perform experiments on mice, but rather — well, stick around and listen to dolphins sing ”So long, and thanks for all the fish.” Actually, that polite sentiment (another key bit of Hitchhiker philosophy), orchestrated and choreographed in an opening number suitable for the extended cut of The Wizard of Oz, represents director (and music-video jokester) Garth Jennings at his best, before he’s tripped up by the challenge of squishing in so much other Adams arcana. Anyhow, as often happens in such cult-hip enterprises, the devoted cast is inspired to flights of thespian bravura. Among the standouts, Alan Rickman conveys true banal sad-sackery as the voice of a depressed robot. Bill Nighy is characteristically divine as a planetary construction engineer. And in an exquisitely loony subplot new for the movie, John Malkovich outdoes himself as the leader of a religious cult devoted to the worship of a giant nose — a spiritual movement that sums up the intersection of the improbable and the mundane where Hitchhikers feel most at home.