Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen
Hugo would be a good place to start in a film history class. Not only does it glide through the early history of silent movies, but it also utilizes the latest digital filmmaking technology in doing so. Martin Scorsese has created a film worthy of the 3D technology that is infecting every big Hollywood blockbuster, and he has done it by using not as a showy gimmick, but as a storytelling tool.
Here, that third dimension immerses us in the movie’s world, drawing us into an opening sequence that transforms from turning clock gears to an overview of Paris, into a train station and finally back into the walls full of clock gears as the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) zooms through these tunnels with make-shift abandon. In one of the most finely filmed sequences of the year, Scorsese keeps track of him with a clever tracking shot that simply pans as he turns corners. If this had been converted to 3D instead of filmed that way, you’d already have whiplash.
Through its more than 2 hour running time, Hugo never disorients or confuses. Much of it takes place inside that Parisian train station, where Hugo lives with his uncle after his father’s untimely death. Hiding from the train station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), he keeps the clocks working while his uncle goes out drinking. He has another goal, though. His father left behind an automaton, a miniature replica of a human made of gears. Hugo ventures out to steal the remaining gears and find the heart-shaped key to make it work.
This mechanical replica of a human is a encapsulation of the movie’s theme: that everyone is a machine with a purpose. Hugo takes to the train station’s main floor in search of missing parts, which puts him contact with a grumpy store owner (Ben Kingsley) and his adopted goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz).
While trying to snatch an object one day when the shop owner appears to have dozed off, Hugo is snatched up, and his notebook/manual for repairing the automaton is taken. From here, Scorsese bobs and weaves through the rest of the story, which mostly focuses on Hugo’s kinship with the goddaughter Isabelle and their discovery of the automaton’s secrets as well as the birth of cinema.
Those two plot points converge in an endless flurry of fantastic imagery. The shop owner is revealed to be the famous silent filmmaker George Méliès, who has exiled himself from his passion after many of his films were lost. Kingsley gives his finest performance in years as that larger-than-life cinema icon, reducing him to a commoner and then exploring his crippling failure and, in the end, his redemption through Hugo.
Hugo‘s greatest success is in blending that history with a fantastically accessible tale of youthful adventure. Scorsese connects deeply with this material even though it’s a very distinct departure from most of his work, working with the two terrific child actors to capture their emotional extremes without condescending to them or the audience. Redemption, a major theme in many of his prominent, extremely violent films, is on the outskirts here. Hugo is a boy in search of purpose, and finds it in fixing things. He spends many of his hours turning the gears of a giant clock, until he discovers his new friend.
With Isabelle and Méliès, Hugo finds the world of cinema his father had told him about. The finest sequences of Hugo are those flashbacks to the filming of old silent films. Bathed in color and admiration, Scorsese fondly pays homage in these scenes to an era that has never stopped mattering. This movie matters not only because of its history lessons, though.
3D is an extremely divisive technology since its rekindling under James Cameron. Whether that kindling lit fire to an art form or shed new light on its digital possibilities is up for passionate debate. What is clear is that both sides have examples to back up their arguments, from disastrous disaster movies like Sanctum or wonderfully immersive experiences like this. Hugo is an artist capturing the essence of childhood in the medium he has helped make great, at the birth of that then-new art form.