First-time director, no big stars, over 20 years in Development Hell, the sudden death of its creator and mentor... what could possibly go right with the screen adap of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy? Lots, as it turns out. Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith - formerly music vid producers Hammer&Tongs and Coen-style collaborators on Hitchhiker's although Jennings directs - have kept the faith with Douglas Adams' original vibe of Monty Python-inspired space mock-opera, delivering a sharp, accessible rework of his cult novel for a generation ignorant to the daft delights of the Babel Fish, Marvin The Paranoid Android and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast Of Traal.
One of the hottest potatoes in recent Hollywood history, Hitchhiker's has been juggled so often from name to name (James Cameron, Jay Roach and Spike Jonze have all flirted with it) it was starting to feel like permanently damaged goods. Adams himself said it best: "Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like grilling a steak by having a series of people come into the room and breathe on it." But, with a script based on notes Adams wrote before his death in 2001, Jennings and Goldsmith have pumped new life into the project by just being very British about the whole thing.
Sci-fi comedy is a rarely tamed frontier (Spaceballs, anyone?). The challenge: to condense Adams' athletic imagination into a 100-odd minute starburst, without it feeling like a redundant retread of the partially successful 1982 TV series. With the absence of Adams as consultant, there was also the danger of sentimentality and over-reverence: sacrificing clarity for quantity by wedging in everysingle one of his amusing musings.
Low-key casting is the masterstroke. Office boy Martin Freeman's unstuffy Arthur is more sympathetic than previous versions, while Mos Def gleefully twists Ford Prefect's frostiness into something more crisp and cocky. Sam Rockwell has the most fun, cranking up Zaphod Beeblebrox's twinkly-toothed smarm and rightly nailing the galactic president as a narcissistic but good-natured idiot - an unholy hybrid of Derek Zoolander and Homer Simpson.
Expect much chat-room fuming among Hitchhiker's vast fanbase over the audacious reworking of Zaphod's second head. A laughable, twitching hunk of plasticine in the TV series, it's now stowed away out of sight, squelching forth like a gurning great pustule in times of stress. From rickety Siamese spare to ill-suppressed Tourette's dark side, you suspect that Adams would find it quite a giggle. But the fanboys will froth, and J&G have smartly peppered the film with respectful visual in-jokes in an effort to muffle any negative geek-buzz.
As the voice of The Book, Stephen Fry hits a bang-on tone of cheerful-cerebral, while Bill Nighy does a fabulous turn as a dotty but proud planet designer ("The coast of Norway - that was one of mine"). John Malkovich even pops up in a role Adams wrote especially for the film, as a cranky religious figurehead (literally) scuttling around on lots of tiny little legs like a big shiny Malkovich woodlouse. You will not require hallucinogenic drugs to accompany this film.
Apart from the odd amble into Red Dwarf-lite territory (the `empathy gun' section is clever but clunks), J&G do an outstanding job of bridging the gap between rickety Dr Who lo-fi and contemporary CGI flair (the busy and witty new Guide graphics will win over the most precious purists). This fusion of old and new applies to the clear sense of affection for the story's history. The opening cloudburst of gigantic Vogon planet-bulldozer ships is staged straight-faced, with an Independence Day level of menace and scale... and then J&G cheekily puncture the mood with a wonderful, breathcatching retro-fit of the old TV series titles and music.
Adams was always aware that Hitchhiker's didn't quite fit a three-act movie structure. Although the dialogue is a perky spruce-up of familiar old lines, the mid-section palpably puffs and pants in its effort to keep up with Adams' tangential logic-leaps. There's 20 minutes of saggy midriff where the film drifts along in dire need of a solid story anchor beyond Arthur's petulant pining for Zooey Deschanel's sexy but schizo Trillian. But things pick up once the players reach Nighy's colossal workshop network, realised as a sprawling mini-universe scattered with scaffolded planets, sketchy coastlines and rough-cut mountain ranges.
In a year set to be steeped in all things Sith, Hitchhiker's is a very British antidote. None of the portentous posturing, but all of the space tripping, fierce creatures, exotic otherworlds and silly names. Such a shame that its creator had to get off before the journey was complete.