Directed by Martin Scorsese. 126 Minutes
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo may seem to be an unlikely film from the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas and The Departed, but what begins as the story of a young boy who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station ultimately becomes a meditation on the history of cinema.
After the death of his father (a cameo appearance by Jude Law) Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the train station with his alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone). After his uncle vanishes, Hugo survives by stealing food from the station’s cafes as he works to keep all of the station’s clocks running on time. This places him in danger of being caught and sent to an orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his dog Maximilian (who seems to be in the film primarily for Chaplin style comedic relief). Hugo’s father left him with an old automaton – a mechanical robot – that Hugo is determined to fix in hope that it will unlock a final message from his father.
Along the way, Hugo meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who mysteriously possesses a heart shaped key that finally brings the automaton to ‘life’. Instead of writing a message as Hugo expects, it simply sends the characters on another mystery as the automaton draws a picture from Georges Méliès film A Trip to the Moon (1902); which in the tradition of magical family movie coincidences, is revealed to be Isabelle’s godfather.
After a somewhat sluggish first hour, Hugo enters full bloom by becoming an enthralling meditation on the artistry and sheer beauty of early cinema. Méliès films often combined the cinematography with elements taken from cinema’s historical precursors such as magic lantern slides and phantasmagoria magic shows. The series of unlikely events that started with Hugo repairing the automaton results in the rediscovery of Méliès the man and his films.
This narrative arc is contained within familiar tropes of the family movie genre, such as children needing to act in secret from adults in order to achieve goals that the adults won’t understand and emphasising the importance of family. The film resolves by finally providing Hugo with a family (which is also mirrored in the station inspector starting a relationship with the flower seller Lisette whose stall is arranged to almost perfectly match the flower stand from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Depending on one’s sensibilities, these conventions are either Hollywood forcing on the audience a sugar-coated ideology that stops us thinking about real world problems, or these are storytelling conventions that are comforting because they harbour elements of universal truths.
Hugo was photographed in 3D using some of the latest digital cameras. Scorsese often uses 3D quite smartly, with parts of the sets or particles of snow and dust often appearing to pop into relief. Sometimes it is simply lamps or important objects such as the love heart key and Hugo’s watch that appear to jut out of the regular foreground plane. Of course, the film contains the occasional dramatic use of the format such as when Maximilian runs directly at the camera when Hugo is chased around the station at the start of the film.
Scorsese’s use of 3D seems to be an attempt to synthesis two trends in 3D filmmaking from the 1950s; the tendency of filmmakers to simply use the system to accentuate depth, such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) and the use of the format for spectacularly aggressive foreground composition, which can be seen in House of Wax (1953). By making this film in 3D, Martin Scorsese demonstrates that it doesn’t matter what technologies are used to make ‘cinema’, what endures from Méliès to Scorsese and beyond is the desire to tell stories using moving images. From flicker books, magic lantern slides, to Zoetropes, and the the latest cutting edge digital video cameras, the technologies used to make ‘movies’ may change, but the need for moving images will endure. Hugo should be seen by anyone interested in seeing a new chapter in the continuing tradition of moving images.