The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (PG)

Lost in space

Huh? Is this really what my school friends were raving about all those years ago? Douglas Adams's much-loved Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, first heard on the radio in the 1970s and then turned into books and a TV show in the 1980s, would have remained a mystery to me still had not a few persevering souls kept faith with the idea of putting it on the big screen. Adams himself wrestled with the project for years, and finally wrote a draft of a screenplay for Disney. Sadly, he didn't live to see it come to fruition, having suffered a fatal heart attack four years ago, aged 49.

So judgement of the finished product must pass to others, and from the evidence of the national press show, the signs aren't good. Seldom have I sat through a high-profile comedy that has generated so little laughter - even nervous laughter. A heresy to its many fans, I know, but might this be because it's actually not funny? It's unfortunate that the picture was screened for its entire length out of sync, though this cannot wholly explain why the script feels so flat and disjointed. Perhaps this kind of apocalyptic whimsy, left to boil too long, loses its comic juices: even I remember the gag about the answer to the meaning of life being "42". Maybe you laughed then, but I fancy you won't laugh now...

The Anglo-American casting has the feel of hedged bets. Nothing wrong with Martin Freeman (Tim from The Office) as the hero Arthur Dent, outraged to find his house being demolished to make way for a new bypass, just as Earth itself is about to be wiped out for the sake of a "hyperspace expressway". Freeman wears his ratty bathrobe and expression of blokeish bemusement quite deftly, though he hardly seems to be in the same movie as Mos Def, playing Arthur's extraterrestrial guide Ford Prefect, or Sam Rockwell as the rockstar-ish galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox. As for Trillian, the darling astrophysicist who bewitches Arthur, Zooey Deschanel has charm to spare, but again, the role is so impersonal that any one of a dozen actors could sleepwalk through it. Alan Rickman, voicing the depressive robot Marvin, just compounds the impression of the film's identity as neither one thing nor the other. At no point did I feel the smallest curiosity as to how these characters would develop or where the plot was going.

Just occasionally one hears the unmistakably English tone of ironic bluffness in the way lofty matters of cosmology are shrunk to the level of the bureaucratic and humdrum. So Arthur wanders aboard a spaceship, having recently escaped the destruction of the planet, and makes it his immediate priority to have a cup of tea. Later, we learn that Zaphod mistakenly signed the order for the Earth's doom because "he thought somebody wanted his autograph".

But the to-ing and fro-ing of this intergalactic romp has the random clunk of pub pinball, and its squiggles of invention - a man with two faces, a fish that translates all languages - are mere juvenile surrealism. Indeed, the whole tenor of Hitchhiker feels like a Seventies throwback: the way fans were given to quoting favourite chunks from it smacks of nothing so much as a nerdy schoolkid's version of Monty Python. Some of those fans may flock to the movie, but it's hard to see who else is going to be tempted.

Mean Creek, on the other hand, is definitely worth the trip. Jacob Aaron Estes's low-budget debut is broadly a rites-of-passage tale, reminiscent of two key movies of 1986, River's Edge and Stand By Me, but neither as hysterical as the one nor as sentimental as the other. It concerns an adolescent prank that goes terribly wrong. Sam (Rory Culkin), bullied at school by fat kid George (Josh Peck), is offered a chance of revenge when his older brother and two friends lure the bully on to a birthday trip downriver. Misgivings surface, however, once Sam begins to see that George could be less a target for retribution than an object of pity, by which point events have assumed an awful momentum of their own.

What's admirable about Estes's film is the way our sympathies are cleverly twisted this way and that until we're not sure who needs forgiveness the most. Central to this is a brilliant performance by Peck as the roly-poly George, who seems pathologically driven to make himself obnoxious.

His antagonism with the group's other troubled soul, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz, a young Brad Pitt-alike), trembles like a spiderwebbed windscreen, waiting for just one tap to make the whole thing implode. This middle section of the story, lovingly photographed as a Malick-style American pastoral, achieves such a level of taut suspense that I seemed to be holding my breath for minutes at a time.

That the third act doesn't match what's gone before is almost inevitable, and the appearance of adults in this hothouse atmosphere somehow breaks the spell. The insistent motif of the videocam that's been recording this calamitous day is also perhaps a mistake: we've had rather too much of filmic meta-commentary in cinema of late.

That said, Mean Creek is a great calling-card for writer-director Estes, who homes in on issues of teenage anxiety and guilt with heat-seeking accuracy and gets precisely what he needs from his young cast. The elements of his first film look, on first inspection, quite unremarkable, but his adroit manipulation of them proves anything but.