Mark Kermode - Virgin voyage

Film - Prepare to be moved by the unfilmable and the unoriginal. By Mark Kermode

The Hitchhiker

After struggling for years to fashion a film script for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which had already been successfully rendered on radio, TV, record, computer game and commemorative towel, and in print, the writer Douglas Adams considered that his most famous creation might actually be unfilmable. On the evidence of this long-awaited movie, for which Adams receives posthumous writer and producer credits, he was probably right.

Despite an evident affection for the project by everyone from designers to performers, the big-screen Hitchhiker's Guide zips around the galaxy without ever really managing to get off the thematic launch-pad. Key to its shortcomings is the (inevitable?) streamlining of Adams's trademark wordy philosophical diversions, within the details of which lurked the true comic devilry of previous incarnations. Thus, while earlier versions used the magical translating abilities of the Babel fish to demonstrate the non-existence of God (such a creature's usefulness proves divine design, but "proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing . . ."), here it merely serves as a quirky narrative device that enables our heroes to traverse the universe in search of the question to the ultimate answer (forty-two).

While this may be diverting enough for Hitchhiking virgins, who will doubtless laugh along with what is essentially Star Wars with jokes, diehard fans may experience that feeling of rudderless ennui which Adams himself termed "the long dark teatime of the soul" - a strange sense of emptiness, or lack of creative purpose, that no amount of hot baths can ever allay.

Which is not to say that, after all the waiting, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is utterly devoid of reasons to be cheerful. Although Mos Def seems perpetually out of place as a black American Ford Prefect, and Sam Rockwell overdoes the goofiness as the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, Martin Freeman makes a smashingly British Arthur Dent, wearing his downbeat dressing gown with shabby aplomb, while deadpan demigod Bill Nighy was clearly born to play the role of fjord-fancying Slartibartfast. Tip-top too as voice artistes are Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, who respectively provide the dulcet tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android, and the "Hitchhiker's Guide" itself. Yet, despite being one of the finest narrators of his generation (check out the Harry Potter talking books for proof), Fry sadly finds himself sidelined as the eponymous Guide's burbling digressions are reduced to infrequent interruptions rather than loquacious extrapolations. Clearly fearful of alienating a mainstream audience with verbose ornamental asides, and hell-bent on pursuing an action-packed adventure narrative (never Adams's strong point), the film-makers Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith - aka pop-promo maestros Hammer & Tongs - bash from one eye-catching set piece to the next without ever pausing to take in the subtextual scenery. The result is less like a lazy hitch-hiking ramble through the inexplicable conundrums of existence than a high-speed chase across the big-screen solar system - a treat for the casual sightseeing tourist, but a disappointment for those who have already set up home in the windmills of Adams's ever-circling mind.

Movies which arrive boasting trophies such as the "John Cassa-vetes Independent Spirit Award" and the "Sundance Humanitas Award" are often worth crossing the street to avoid for anyone averse to brow-furrowing earnestness. Thankfully Mean Creek, by the writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, is blessed with a genuinely haunting melancholia that more than compensates for its profound lack of originality. Taking its lead from a plethora of edgy coming-of-age films (River's Edge, Stand by Me, Bully, The Outsiders, etc) this latter-day parable places its teen-age protagonists on an ill-fated boat trip in which a bullying misfit becomes an unwitting victim in a tragically fatal childhood prank. Shot with misty hand-held beauty by cinematographer Sharone Meir in a style that recalls the intimacy of Larry Clark minus the leery intrusion, Mean Creek makes the most of its youthful ensemble cast, headed up by the youngest Culkin brat, Rory. Techno-geeks tomandandy provide a deliciously lyrical score, which perfectly complements the film's simple themes of innocence lost and redemption falteringly offered.

OK, so it's all fairly formulaic stuff, and the tangible sense of dread that hangs over the first half of the film is somewhat dissipated as the narrative stumbles in the wake of inevitable disaster. But there is an empathy for these characters and their lonely plight that prevents Mean Creek from diving headlong into maudlin melodrama, leaving us ultimately wishing the best for all concerned. Perhaps that off-puttingly named Humanitas award was entirely appropriate after all.