Surely "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" would seem sufficiently well-known and have a large enough cult following for its various incarnations that comparing it to something else -- another book, another TV series, another movie, whatever -- would be pointless. You know it or you don't. You love it or you don't.
But sitting through the long-awaited film version of Douglas Adams' beloved book calls to mind another ambitious effort: not Monty Python, with which it's easy to find similarities, but last year's "I (Heart) Huckabees."
Both have eclectic ensemble casts. Both mix complicated concepts with broad physical comedy. Both have the courage to be completely out there with wild ideas and images.
Despite its quick, quirky opening and dry British wit, after a while "Hitchhiker's Guide" feels like an onslaught. There is simply too much stuff -- too many aliens, too many gadgets, too many elaborately absurd set pieces -- all at the expense of character development and plot.
The first film from longtime music video director Garth Jennings has traveled to the screen with lots of baggage. Adams died in 2001 at 49 while working (and re-working) on the screenplay; the script is credited to him and Karey Kirkpatrick.
What they've come up with sporadically flirts with genius -- like the guide itself, a precursor to the Blackberry with its bright colors and oversimplified graphics, the contents of which are explained in understated fashion by narrator Stephen Fry. Alan Rickman, meanwhile, provides the ideally droll voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android, who's rendered like a "Star Wars" storm trooper with a case of encephalitis.
Most everything else, though, feels aimless and a little empty as the characters meander from one section of the galaxy to the next.
We don't know that much about everyman hero Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, Tim from the BBC series "The Office") or Tricia McMillan (the irrepressibly lovely Zooey Deschanel), the American girl he adores and with whom he unexpectedly reunites in space after the Earth blows up. Who they are doesn't seem to matter as much as the places they inhabit, which are invariably over-the-top in detail.
And then there's Sam Rockwell, playing the incompetent galactic president, Zaphod Beeblebrox, in a way Adams couldn't have imagined back in 1978. Rockwell is doing an impression of President Bush -- or he's doing an impression of a parody of Bush, with his breezy jokes and smug twang -- but he's dressed like the lead singer of a '70s glam-rock band.
This is a fascinating juxtaposition to behold, and it would have been the film's best performance if Rockwell weren't saddled with a repetitive, distracting special effect in which a second head pops out of his neck and starts talking while the first head just sort of dangles at the back of his neck.