On the afternoon of the day I saw The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I happened across my horoscope in a newspaper. It said: "In the next few hours you will be eating a lot of cheese. It's okay. Enjoy yourself."
Well, damned if the stars weren't on the mark, except for the "enjoy yourself" part. "Cheesy" is a good word to describe Hitchhiker's Guide, a sort of retro-hip sci-fi action movie with a waning cult pedigree. Call it Monty Python meets Star Wars meets the most expensive Nickelodeon movie ever made, a kiddie show whose dizzying "creativity" feels copiously derivative, right down to one of its daunting defensive weapons, a terrycloth bath towel with the utility of a Swiss Army knife (can you say "Terrible Towel"?).
This mind-and-body trip began in 1977, when Douglas Adams co-created "Hitchhiker's Guide" as a sci-fi comedy show for British radio. A book, mini-series and mini-industry followed for Adams, who died in 2001, just before turning 50. The feature-film version spent 20 years in Hollywood limbo and -- big surprise -- its director-at-last, Garth Jennings, comes to the cinema from music videos (REM and Blur, a '90s Britpop band). So Hitchhiker's Guide is pretty much yesterday's mod.
The movie's loopy story opens with the theory that scientists misunderstood the language of dolphins, which actually tried to warn us of Earth's impending destruction by an intergalactic tyrant desperate to put a hyperspace pathway through the galaxy.
After the big bang, Earth's only survivor is Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), a dumpy British Everyman who, just before the explosion, was fighting city hall's plan to put a freeway through his front yard (oh, ironies!). He's saved by his buddy Ford Prefect (Mos Def, unexpectedly droll), who's actually an alien, and they join up with trippy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, still charming and shameless), whose archenemy is Humma Kavula (John Malkovich, from the waist up). There's also pretty Tricia (Zooey Deschanel), who's supposed to love Zaphod, who doesn't understand her (Arthur, of course, does).
And so on through a catalogue of nerdy insights about life, death, love, philosophy, technology and nasal discharge. Helen Mirren is the voice of Deep Thought, a gigantic stone that tells them the Answer to the Big Question ("42") but not the Question itself. Alan Rickman voices a whiny depressive robot, and Stephen Fry narrates passages from the eponymous animated book, which the characters use as their interstellar Baedeker.
It's rarely funny (the best quips are dry and British), and its only good set piece -- apart from a Pythonesque Broadway-style song in which dolphins tell a doomed Earth, "So long, and thanks for all the fish" -- is the POV Gun, which allows men to understand other people's feelings. This device was invented by irritated housewives in aprons, as if to tell us that not even a universe of wisdom can truly resolve the battle of the sexes.