Don't Panic: Hitch a Ride With the Hitchhiker's Guide
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) loses his house and his home planet in the film adaptation of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Credit: Touchstone Pictures.

It is almost impossible not to feel the tremendous, overwhelming affection that inundates every iota of every millimeter of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

From the first strike of the big band-like musical revue of dolphins escaping an imperiled Earth to the final fade-to-black simply embellished with "For Douglas," there is a warmth and respect for the material that is practically palpable.

The cetacean extravaganza, "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish," set to music by composer Joby Talbot with lyrics from director Garth Jennings, has to be the cheeriest funeral song for a doomed planet, especially one whose entertainment industry has decreed all blockbusters be consigned the bloated landscape of flash without substance.

Jennings, producer Robbie Stamp and company, however, have managed an unostentatiously fitting tribute to late Hitchhiker's author Douglas Adams, who died of a heart attack shortly after he finished a second draft of the screenplay in 2001, by skimping on too many CGI bells and whistles and choosing instead to tell Adams' story with a combination of old-school special effects and animatronics.

What follows is a gloriously surreal, and sometimes just plain silly, romp across the galaxy that manages to dive into the deeper philosophical questions we may all have pondered at one time or another. For instance, what does a 50-foot-long sperm whale--formerly a nuclear missile--think about when it's plummeting to the surface of a planet below?

At the opening of Hitchhiker's, which opens Friday at theaters nationwide, we find our protagonist, English everyman Arthur Dent (played by Martin Freeman, who also plays English everyman Tim on BBC's The Office) trying to prevent his house from being demolished--to make room for a bypass--by lying in front of a bulldozer, clad in nothing but his pajamas and bathrobe.

In an ironic twist of fate much favored by the universe, Earth is targeted--at that exact moment--for destruction so a hyperspace freeway can be built. Luckily for Arthur, his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def)--who happens to be an alien--comes to the rescue, hitching them both a ride on a passing spacecraft while sheep stampede in terror across fields and the rest of us lie down on the floor of a nearby pub with paper bags over our heads.

Armed with nothing but a towel and the eponymous Guide, which provides helpful explanations to this brave, new universe in the form of animated sequences and voiceovers by Blackadder alum Stephen Fry, Ford and an appropriately bewildered Arthur join up with the narcissistic two-headed President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Marvin the Paranoid Android (played by Warwick Davis and voiced by the deliciously deadpan Alan Rickman) and the only other surviving Earthling, Tricia Macmillian, who prefers the more space-sounding "Trillian" (Zooey Deschanel), on a cosmic quest for the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. (Actually, they know the answer--it's 42-- it's the Ultimate Question they're after now.)

To further complicate things, their ship, Heart of Gold, is stolen--by our Richard Branson-meets Bill Clinton-meets Elvis galactic president, no less-- with a fleet of very ugly aliens in hot pursuit wielding fatally bad poetry. Heart of Gold is powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive that allows the spaceship to cross vast distances in a blink of an eye, but renders the ship and its human and not-so-human contents to shape-shift into all kinds of, well, infinitely improbable objects--a too-brief scene where our anti-heroes transform into knitted versions of themselves is a particular visual treat.

It's taken over a quarter of a century for Adams' cultural phenomenon to make its silver screen debut, but if we are experiencing a sort of renaissance in British sci-fi, we would never know it on this side of the Pond.

The BBC's Doctor Who, which coincidentally Adams also wrote scripts for, is back on the tube after a 16-year drought, but remains unavailable to American audiences due to lack of interest on the part of the networks. Still, the genre is nothing if not tenacious.

Hitchhiker's first started out as a radio play on BBC radio in 1978, then developed into a bestselling novel, a five-part "trilogy," a television series, a computer game, all the while amassing fans such as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Darwinist Richard Dawkins.

While purists may cry foul at some of the tweaks the movie has made to the book's original plot, producer Robbie Stamp has made it clear that Douglas never meant for Hitchhiker's to be a static, singular work, "but something that was able to shift and change into different incarnations in different media and different times." New elements which Douglas designed for the movie, including the Point of View gun and the quite insane intergalactic prophet/missionary Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), have also been brought to life.

As audiences prepare to be deluged by summer blockbusters groaning under the weight of their own hype and conceit, do yourself a favor and watch this unpretentious gem of a movie.

Then, go and read or re-read the book that started it all, and join the ranks of the many who already know why a towel is just about the most useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have--and that anyone who can travel the expanse of time and space, win against terrible odds, and still find his towel, is clearly someone to be reckoned with.

(The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy opens April 29. Running time: 103 minutes, PG).