British humor: an ordinary bloke gets to tour the galaxies with hyperspace intergalactic travel, and all he can think about is that he can’t get a good cup of tea anywhere.
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up one morning in his ramshackle house in the country, only to discover that the wrecking crew has arrived to level his modest home, because they’re going to build a bypass there. He lies in front of a bulldozer in his bathrobe to protest. The construction supervisor tells him that it’s a useless gesture, because the decision’s already been made. In the meantime, his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) scurries toward him, anxious to get him to the nearest pub to drink a couple of quick pints before the world ends. Yes, Mr. Prefect, it turns out, is an alien, and he’s planning to beam up to the spaceship via his thumb ring before the world explodes. You see, the planet Earth, also, has been scheduled for demolition in order to make way for a highway in space.
So now we have two galactic hitchhikers, who soon run into a couple more: Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the President of the Galaxy, who talks like a California surfer dude and acts like he’s perfectly vacuous in his “outer face.” His “inner face,” which he can let out sometimes, is his “true self,” because, you see, everybody knows that a real person can’t possibly be an elected leader.
To try to tell this story in a linear fashion is to miss the point. It’s not about the plot, it’s about being campy. The computer on the spaceship talks slang to them. The dolphins knew all along that the world was going to end, and they tried to tell us, but we kept misinterpreting their signals to us as crowd-pleasing tricks at Sea World, and so at the last minute all the dolphins fly spaceward (but that’s OK, because later on a sperm whale comes hurtling down in return.)
And how about the depressed robot that complains constantly, doesn’t find joy in anything, and thinks everything is going to turn out badly? Or how about the aliens who are big, dumb, bureaucrats, unable to think for themselves and slavishly requiring all orders to be signed in triplicate?
Or how about the quest for the meaning of life, and when the supercomputer says “the answer” is 42, then they all realize that the question wasn’t challenging enough? Our Mr. Everyman thinks the real question of his life is “Will she love me?”, meaning Tricia (Zooey Deschanel), who also managed to escape the destruction, but only because she let herself get picked up at a party by this weird-talking California surfer dude who turned out to be the President of the Galaxy.
Well, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, so we should be careful that we don’t. The two mice at the end that appear to rule the world actually only want money, which means their quest isn’t existential enough, either. At the end, we decide we like the world just the way it is, thank you, including all the wondrous animals and the ill-tempered people.
“A Hitchhiker’s Guide” is not really laugh-out-loud funny, but a whimsical way to gently poke fun at how seriously we take ourselves, when all along we should have just relaxed and enjoyed the absurdity of it all for a while.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
If you thought the world were going to end in the next five minutes, what would you do? What would you not do?
If you were to travel extensively, what little thing would you miss most about being home? A newspaper? A certain brand of coffee or soft drink? A certain television show?
When do you tend to take yourself too seriously? What’s the antidote?
What in your life is so self-important and humorless that it needs a parody?
Do you think you will have any warning about when the world is going to end? (Matthew 24: 36-42)
RON SALFEN is pastor of Westminster Church in Dallas, Texas.