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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Directed by Garth Jennings
Touchstone Pictures
110 minutes (PG rating)

Commentary by Kevin Miller

I confess: I have never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have never listened to the original radio drama. I’ve never seen the TV mini-series. I’ve never read the comic book adaptation. And I have never played the video game. Hence, I wondered if I had any business even reviewing this film. Why not leave that task to the professionals? But as I watched the movie, I began to think that perhaps I was wrong.

Maybe I was the ideal person for the job, seeing as I was not distracted by issues that would have troubled the common fan, such as how faithful/unfaithful the film was to its previous incarnations. (None of which are faithful to each other, so I’m told.) Unlike the majority of viewers, I would be able to evaluate the film according to what it attempted to be—the drollest of droll outer space comedies, what Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs would have been had it been funny and made by the Brits. More to the point, however, I believe my ignorance also allowed me to see something in the film that I never expected to discover, something that may have escaped everyone’s attention until now. In short, I think I have discovered nothing less than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gospel. Let me explain.

Arthur Dent, the hero of this tale, is the Everyman—so preoccupied by the trivialities of life that when the end comes, he is caught completely unaware. Never mind that plans for the demolition of his house have been on display for a year, and that plans for the destruction of Earth itself have been available for centuries.

Fortunately for Dent, he inadvertently saved the life of the one and only person who can rescue him from this impending calamity—Ford Prefect, an alien who came to earth to conduct research for his article in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Guide is the ultimate travel companion for the interstellar thumb-waggler, the back cover of which reads “Don’t Panic!” in bold, bright letters. At the last second, Prefect and Dent hitch a ride with the very creatures that are about to implode the planet—the evil Vogons, huge, slobbering, bureaucrats from hell. Thus begins a new phase of existence for Dent, who is so unprepared for the rapturous journey that he is still in his pajamas.

Let’s pause a moment for reflection: Like Dent, all of us have been forewarned that the end of our individual lives—indeed, the end of the world—is an absolute certainty. However, also like Dent, most of us live in denial of this fact, so bound up in the mundane details of life that when the end comes, we are surprised, angry, and afraid. If we had looked into it, we would have seen that it was clear all along, and we could have taken appropriate action. As it stands, though, most of us are more like the people Prefect and Dent meet in the bar just prior to lift-off: When the end finally arrives, we simply put bags over our heads, lie down on the floor, and hope for the best.

The good news is: if you form the right relationship before disaster befalls you (with Christ, for example, who, like Prefect, descended to earth and has the ability to save us), you can stand up, take the bag off your head, and face the end of the world and your own impending death with confidence. You will realize there is a life beyond the details, and you will be free to stick out your thumb and hitch a ride on the cosmic express when all is said and done.

Through Dent, we also learn that evil isn’t necessarily the big and scary thing horror movies would have us believe. Evil can also be found in the details, the small, barely discernible choices that slowly lead us off the narrow path and into the wilderness, blinding us to the machines of destruction that are right at our door. We become so set on maintaining the status quo, of satisfying our petty desires (all Dent really wants is a good cup of tea) that we rarely pause to wonder what it’s all about. Hence, life is reduced to a series of mundane tasks punctuated by brief moments of panic when we realize we might not complete those tasks on time. Eventually, these responsibilities can become like the Vogons--huge, ponderous things that threaten to crush us not with sheer strength or superior firepower but with the relentless, agonizing weight of bad poetry read with enthusiasm.

Thankfully, like Prefect, Christ has also contributed his own entry into the ultimate guide to the universe—the Bible—and his message is just as clear as the one on the back cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “Don’t panic!” If you are face-to-face with evil, if life seems chaotic, if you’re drowning in details, if you can’t depend on anyone around you for help or answers, if you are all alone, if you are in any difficult situation whatsoever, don’t panic! Just refer to the guide, and it will show you the way out.

Continuing the analogy, after being sucked into space, Dent goes through a “life after death” experience of sorts. He is even transformed into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)—a sofa at one point, a doll made out of yarn at another. He also gets a taste of hell on board the Vogons’ ship, and he even gets to visit a new heaven (the spaceship “Heart of Gold,” where you need only think of what you most desire and it will appear), and a new earth (turns out the manufacturer created a spare). On the new earth, he is presented with a choice: resume his old life or continue to careen around the galaxy on a wild adventure in search of the ultimate question. To Dent’s credit, he turns his back on the familiar, realizing he was as good as dead anyway, and embraces the great unknown.

We are all faced with a similar choice: Persist down a road that we know leads to death (Ephesians 2:1), or turn away from it and embrace a life of adventure with Christ (Romans 6:23). It is a risky decision either way. But as Pascal pointed out in his famous wager, even if you think the probability of God’s existence is unlikely, the potential upside of believing far outweighs the consequences if you don’t believe and are wrong.

As much as I was amazed by all of these parallels (and there are several more I haven’t discussed) I was most impressed by the way this film deals with the answer to “life, the universe, and everything.” According to the supercomputer constructed solely to solve this mystery, the proper response is “42.” As it turns out, this answer doesn’t do anyone a whole lot of good though, because no one really knows what the ultimate question is. It’s like a nightmare version of Jeopardy.

The answer bothers Dent most of all, because the further he journeys through the galaxy, the more he realizes a number can’t possibly explain all that he is seeing, experiencing, and, most of all, feeling. The answer has to be something more. It has to be about a person, about relationship, about love. Is it a coincidence that he makes this discovery while flying around in a spaceship named “The Heart of Gold” that is captained by a man (Zaphod Beeblebrox) who has two heads, one supposedly controlled by reason and intellect and the other by emotion? I think not. I took this to be Adams’ way of saying that science, represented by the number “42,” certainly can tell us a lot about life, particularly the mechanics of how things work. But when it comes to “Why?” questions, questions of meaning, we must look for answers beyond the physical realm.

Unfortunately, many of us are like Zaphod. We are convinced that to answer such questions, we must first hive off part of our being, giving preference to either intellect or emotion rather than allowing them to work together. As Dent discovers, though, Zaphod’s approach just leads to chaos. Only when we reunite the two halves of our being can we truly see and understand life, the universe, and everything in it. Once Dent makes this discovery, he finally finds the hope that has eluded him throughout the film. And that hope inspires him to defeat the Vogons, save the girl, and live happily ever after. The cool thing is, we can experience this same hope as well, if only we are willing to embrace the totality of our existence.

At the beginning of this film, the narrator notes that most things in life are not as they appear. I couldn’t agree more, particularly in terms of this movie. I have always assumed that the main attraction of the Hitchhiker series was its brilliant, satirical humor. However, after watching this film, I suspect that Adams’ appeal goes far beyond his penchant for absurdity and extends deep into his readers’ desire for answers to life’s ultimate questions. In Adams, they recognize a fellow seeker; one who realized that searching for answers is important, but that laughter is a crucial component to finding your way on life’s journey. Too bad his own journey was cut so short.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller.


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