Hitchiker's Guide The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on Blu-ray disc

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by Jim Bray

The late Douglas Adams' meal ticket was his Hitchhiker's series, which began as a radio show and then morphed into a truly multimedia phenomenon that included novels, a BBC TV miniseries, stage versions, computer game and finally this movie version now on Blu-ray.

The many versions and sequels are complementary but don't necessarily follow or even agree with each other. This can make the episodic stories hard to follow, but logic isn't really what Hitchhiker's is all about - it's a quintessentially British laugh fest, full of language gags and the kind of sci-fi situation (especially sci-fi of the Doctor Who meme) that wonders "what if" and then proceeds to tell us what is.

This movie version keeps some of the stuff we've come to know and love, and throws in a bunch of other stuff that waters it down (while adding superfluous state-of-the-art special effects) until we end up with a mishmash that, instead of making us laugh all over again, makes us want to track down the old BBC series to clean our palates with.

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is a British Everyman living a quiet life until one morning he discovers that his house has been scheduled for demolition to make way for a highway bypass. If that weren't bad enough, his acquaintance Ford Prefect (Mos Def) then puts his troubles into a larger perspective by giving him the really bad news: he (Ford) is really an alien visitor and he just discovered that the entire Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass.

Fortunately, Ford is also a stringer for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (a point not really stressed in this movie), there to gather info on the planet - and this means he's also clued in to how they can get off the planet before it goes blooey!

Next thing Arthur knows he's aboard a Vogon space ship, hitching a ride into a series of wild adventures that take him through space-time and a variety of mind games designed to test his mettle and, as it turns out, our patience and ability to suspend our disbelief.

Okay, this isn't really a story that requires the suspension of disbelief. It never takes itself seriously, which is a darn good thing, and so we never have to take it seriously. But somewhere along the way Adams' concept gets changed and Americanized (not that Americanization is necessarily a bad thing, but the Americanization of British comedies has a spotty track record) and feminized and, well you get the point.

Rats!, Er, Mice! If they'd managed to take the highlights from the miniseries and turn them into a big budget film, this could have been very good. But they seem to have tried instead to make the movie palatable to a North American audience (heck, Trillian, Ford and Zaphod aren't even "British" anymore - if aliens can be British to begin with - so how can they be expected to pull off a comedy much of whose charm - as with the Harry Potter series - comes from its Britishness?). It's like trying to make "Monty Python's Life of Brian" with Ben Affleck as Brian and Angelina Jolie as his rat bag mother.

The movie starts well enough but about halfway through we were ready for the end of the universe (a reference they also screw up at the film's climax - the end of the universe isn't a place, it's an event, dammit!). They could have shortened some of the (beautifully done) "Hey, look what neat effects scenes we have" bits and gassed the entire John Malkovich section in favor of more Adams and it may have worked better.

Plenty of movies change the original source to suit them. Fine. But this movie sucked the life out of the original source and replaced it with what appears to be Hollywood's idea of what a British comedy should be like.

That said, if you don't know the real story, you may find plenty to like here. I was cruising the reviews and many people who weren't Hitchhiker's fans before seeing this version liked it quite a bit. And it is visually sumptuous.

But if you really want to see Hitchhiker's on video, dig up the BBC series.

Of course if you do watch the BBC version you'll miss the experience of this Blu-ray disc, which  is a lovely visual experience whose 1080p treatment does it more justice than it probably deserves.

The 1080p picture is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and it's sharp as a tack, with nothing I can really complain about. Blacks are steady and there's good depth to the picture (though it isn't anywhere near the best in this regard). Skin textures (whether human or Vogon) are crisp and clear, and the effects come through sharply and cleanly.  

The audio very good, which is a shame because it means you won't be tempted to turn down the sound and just groove on the visuals, saving you from having to hear the dialog. The soundtrack is offered in uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround at 48kHz/16-bit and it's full of interesting effects and stuff. Dialogue comes through very well, which is fortunate in this particularly talky movie with plenty of narration in it.

The overall dynamic range is very good, with nice, rumbly low bass and smoothness from lows to highs. There's plenty of surrounds, too, with good separation between all the channels.

Extras include two audio commentaries (here's your chance to miss the dialog!), one featuring  author Adams' collaborators Robbie Stamp (who executive-produced the movie) and Sean Solle (who worked with Adams). Rather than make excuses, they tell us that Adams gave his blessing to (and even suggested some of) the changes. I imagine he was well paid for it, too. 

The second commentary teams director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith with actors Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy for a session that in some ways is more fun than the movie.

The other extras are pretty straightforward as well - but most are in HD. We get a few deleted scenes that are really just extensions of existing scenes and some "really deleted scenes" that look like improvisations done on set. And an extra entry in the Guide is a quick look at God. 

Disney also includes a "Movie Showcase" that gives you quick access to a few scenes that showcase the 1080p HD and PCM audio.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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