Light rockets towards the subject, before glancing away. With precalculated dexterity, it is then bent by layers of glass, its intensity controlled by a man with a light meter. Clicking and clacking gears drive complex mechanisms, presenting a thin sheet of emulsion to the incoming light. The negative shapes and molds the printer light, casting a mere shadow of itself onto an additional strip of film. Then the projector light is ignited, the gears click and clack, the emulsion casts a mere shadow of itself, which is bent by layers of glass, leaving the light rocketing towards the movie screen… Then it glances off again.
Cinema is memory… A remembrance of other lives and other worlds. It accomplishes this by capturing and then reigniting light itself.
So why doesn’t Hugo make us feel like a part of these cinematic devices?
I hold much respect for Scorsese, but his latest film cannot correctly articulate the illusion of film. Part of this is due to the fact that it is branded as a children’s movie, which leads to too much storytelling being exposed through dialogue and convenient flashbacks.
Hugo tells the story of a boy of the same name. His father and him had been working on restoring a clockwork automaton to full function, before his father died in a fire. Hugo has resorted to living in a train station, keeping the clocks running and properly oiled. His dream is to one day restore the automaton, in the hopes of completing his father’s work. The legendary filmmaker, Georges Méliès is later involved, turning the film into a sort of plea for film preservation and appreciation.
First of all, the film is rather tangential, taking long pauses in the action to explore possible romantic side-plots, or to have a flashback or dream sequence that wasn’t entirely needed. It will elaborately explain how a character is utterly human at one moment, then take a turn and explain how the world is a machine, and how each character ‘can be fixed’ by a simple tweak here and there, as if tinkering with an automaton. Thematically, the film never truly fits together. Hugo himself has a very binary view of the world and the people around him. To him, people are either in need of fixing, or not. His only character arch is that he goes from simply observing their problems, to actually fixing them.
The acting is rather good. Of course, it is always a great difficulty to work primarily with child actors, but Asa Butterfield (Hugo) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle) are quite solid, with moments of brilliance. Early in the film, some of the lines are delivered rather awkwardly, but this becomes less often as the characters are more fully defined. Ben Kingsley (Georges Méliès) is absolutely fantastic as always. Some of the secondary actors, such as Sacha Baron Cohen, are extremely entertaining and are occasionally more interesting to watch and actually slightly better defined than some of the primary characters.
Dialogue ends up telling the story and forming the world of Hugo much more than the imagery does. The beginning of the film attempts to introduce us to the world and the characters through the use of sweeping camerawork, but when it comes down to it, we rarely spend much time truly experiencing this environment, except for when the main characters, as well as the handful of secondary characters, are interacting with it. This is a shame, because the world that we glimpse seems to be very interesting, and deserving of our attention. Let us breath the steam of the station. Let us observe the motion of a clock for more than just a couple seconds at a time. Let us observe the crowd of people and experience fragments of their stories. Let us travel through the dingy service tunnels at regular intervals. Anything to give the audience a better and more rich sense of place.
Hugo is famously Scorsese’s first 3D film, as well as his first time shooting digitally. This seems at odds with the fact that it explores the joy and ingenuity of the physical, spinning mechanism, and delights in the dream-like nature of film. The camera mechanism that the film so thoroughly explores is entirely absent in the making of this film. The self-reflexive nature of Hugo is pointing at something that it is not. I asked myself after stepping out of the theater “what if Scorsese had taken one of Méliès’ original cameras, and shot the entire film on it? Would that have made a more successful film?” In my opinion, this alternative path would have made it more self-reflexive by nature, resulting in a film that was much more involved with the idea of ‘the joy of movies.’ Scorsese could have even revealed the mechanisms of cinema to us, through the usage of in-camera effects, and made Hugo a magic trick in of itself, possibly on par with Méliès’ own work. This would have allowed for a more meta-reflection upon such films as A Trip To The Moon, rather than the simple ‘show the audience a clip’ style of reflection found in Hugo. This is the most basic form of homage, after all, and probably due to the fact that the film is, ultimately, aimed at children. Hugo pays homage to Méliès’ work by having a character who literally says ‘One film of his remains… And it is a masterpiece.” He refers of course to A Trip To The Moon, which is a masterpiece, after all. However, the average theatergoing audience would honestly be quite alienated by the film if they were to see it themselves, because it feels so dated to our modern eyes. Therefore, simply showing us the film is not enough to truly convey the mastery behind it. Scorsese apparently understood this, so he included dialogue to help tell the audience how to think about it. In my opinion, this is not the right approach. The art of the homage, after all, is a much more complex creature. If the filmmakers had taken more cinematic cues from Méliès himself, the audience could have truly lived and experienced the idea of the magic trick, and built a sort of appreciation and fascination for the man’s work without the film ever having to utter a word about it.
On the flip side, the film remains entertaining. Hugo recreates some of the sets and costumes that were used in Méliès’ work to great success. Because of this, the art direction is relatively relieving. Hugo is a rare film in the sense that it understands how important mise-en-scéne can really be. The set design is spectacular, and the props feel real and textural. Even though many of the themes felt forced, the aesthetic of the steamy environment and spinning gears is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I just wish I could have seen more of it.
At the end of the day, it remains almost ironic that a film that revels in the idea of gears moving in perfect harmony cannot move in perfect harmony itself.
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(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Acting: *** 1/2
Story: ** 1/2
Art Direction: **** 1/2
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: ****
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: **