Beloved by potheads, Anglophiles, and nerds alike, the two words inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are actually good advice: Don’t panic. They’re especially appropriate for those millions of humans who’ve been anxiously waiting for the big-screen adaptation of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy since it was optioned more than two decades ago. Originally aired on BBC Radio 4 in the late ’70s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had been rewritten as a novel, a television miniseries, a text-based video game, and a comic book by the time the late Adams finished the final revision of his film script. How could the whimsical interstellar travels of hapless Everyman Arthur Dent (The Office’s Martin Freeman) possibly seem charming after so many iterations? And who’s this Karey Kirkpatrick person doing sharing a screenwriting credit with Adams? Don’t panic: First-time feature director Garth Jennings moves his cast efficiently through the film’s countless subplots, quirky dialogue, and tastefully CGI’d sets. And Kirkpatrick, who also co-scripted James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run, turns out to be just the gleefully childlike talent required to convey the tale of a man who escapes from Earth moments before it’s destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Accidentally picked up by the stolen starship Heart of Gold, Arthur and alien buddy Ford Prefect (Mos Def) make their way across the stars in search of the legendary, luxury-planet-building world of Magrathea and the answer to, as Adams put it, “life, the universe, and everything.” If the story sounds a little (or a lot) random, that’s because “radical atheist” Adams wrote it that way. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is brimming with not only visits to various wondrous civilizations and tutorials from the ever-informative Guide itself, but also plenty of philosophy masquerading as comedy (and vice versa). The film’s greatest strength is that hardly any of this comes across as forced or facile, thanks in large part to the uniformly excellent, infectiously high-spirited cast. Freeman brings an edge of affrontedness to his rumpled Englishman in search of an interstellar cup of tea. Def demonstrates a real gift for physical comedy as an Earthling-imitating alien. And Alan Rickman, as the voice of terminally depressed android Marvin, deftly channels the darker undercurrents of the novel. If the cosmos of The Hitchhiker’s Guide can sometimes seem overwhelming and meaningless, it’s always guided by a human intelligence.

—Matthew Borlik