The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The risks inherent in blending comedy and science-fiction are so great that the combination is not often attempted. Consider: Sci-fi depends on the audience taking its far-out ideas seriously. If you introduce laughs into the mix, even on subjects other than the film’s science premises, it’s only a half-step further for audiences to begin laughing at the science, too.

There is an awkwardness to some of the comedy in the long-awaited new film version of Douglas Adams’ beloved sci-fi novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Plenty of the laughs are straightforward enough, like the robot, Marvin, who is always gloomily depressed about everything (he is voiced by Alan Rickman, of course), or the ship’s computer who speaks in the voice of a gregarious, eager-to-please car salesman. But other elements are more bizarre, and the line between “this is supposed to be funny” and “this is just how sci-fi is” becomes blurry. When John Malkovich appears as an alien whose upper half is mostly normal but whose lower half is composed of dozens of spindly little legs — is that creepy, funny, weird, or some combination?

To be sure, this is not a film for hardcore fans of ordinary sci-fi. It has the trappings of such, of course, including some nifty little sci-fi ideas (like the “improbability drive” that transports you someplace based on what it perceives as the least-likely outcomes), but mostly its focus is oddball comedy and mild sci-fi satire, not laser-gun action or futuristic theories.

Our hero is Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a normal, dull British man who is rescued at the last minute from the Earth’s destruction by his friend Ford (Mos Def), who turns out to be an alien and who was aware of the impending doom. Ford, as it happens, writes for a book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” an extraordinarily helpful and interactive tome (voiced by Stephen Fry) that fills Arthur and the audience in on the events at hand.

Arthur and Ford hitch a ride on the spaceship currently occupied by Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), a fatuous, egotistical, two-headed swinger/cowboy type who is president of the galaxy but who behaves with none of the dignity normally associated with that office. (If you think Rockwell is doing an impression of Billy Bob Thornton doing an impression of George W. Bush, you are not alone.) He has stolen this spaceship, actually, and has brought along an Earth girl named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), whom Arthur met at a party the night before Earth was destroyed. He’s looking for a planet where exists an ancient computer that once, years ago, spit out the answer to “life, the universe and everything.” The answer was “42.” Knowing the answer, Zaphod now wants to know what the question is.

I read Adams’ novel years ago and loved it, but don’t recall it well enough to say how faithful the movie is to the book in terms of story. (Adams wrote a treatment of the screenplay before his death, and it has been embellished by Karey Kirkpatrick, of “Chicken Run” and “James and the Giant Peach.”) I can say, however, that much of the humor was not in the dialogue but in Adams’ clever way of describing things, his careful choice of words. Much of that is lost in a movie, of course, where things are shown rather than described, though we do still have the narrator/Hitchhiker’s Guide to supply some of that.

The movie is never dull, but it does seem to wander a bit, with an odd, almost delirious storyline that will probably put off viewers who are unfamiliar with Adams’ books. It’s uneven, too, with rather advanced-looking special effects in one sequence and charmingly old-fashioned ones in another, all as it delivers belly laughs one minute and is just plain odd the next. It is not, I fear, the film “Hitchhiker” fans were hoping for, though it is mostly harmless.

B- (1 hr., 48 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity, mild violence.)