These days it’s no great leap to see movies as our culture’s dominant way of telling each other stories, which in turn tell us who we are. Sam Spade was talking about the statue, but he could well have said that The Maltese Falcon itself was “the stuff that dreams are made of”. And, in ways hard for another medium to match, the moving image can bring a viscerality to otherwise impossible, amazing stories. But science fiction on the silver screen is no recent innovation; it goes all the way back to the birth of cinema.
One of the most influential of these early innovators was Georges Méliès. To love film you must acknowledge the enormous debt all modern cinematic storytellers owe to his work. For Martin Scorsese, this acknowledgement takes the form of Hugo, and his love of the medium shines through every celluloid frame. And so, the story begins.
There once — in the twentiess, between the world wars — was a boy who lived in a train station, named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). He hadn’t always lived in a train station; indeed, he used to live with his father (Jude Law), who taught him how to make and repair clockworks. They even worked on restoring an old automaton Hugo’s father had found in a museum storeroom, which seemed to be designed to write once it was properly wound.
That is, until tragedy struck; Hugo’s sot of an uncle took him to Paris’ Montparnasse station and taught him how to keep all the clocks wound before disappearing. Hugo survives, living in the walls, stealing food to eat and clockwork parts from the shop run by an old toymaker (Ben Kingsley) — trying to repair the automaton in the hope that somehow it could deliver some last message from his father — and avoiding the patrols of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
The toymaker knows his own share of tragedy; with his wife (Helen McCrory) he raises his orphaned goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). And yet when he catches Hugo, he hard-heartedly keeps the notebook Hugo’s father had written to help repair the automaton. Hugo appeals to Isabelle to save the notebook, and the two strike up a secret friendship.
Isabelle is an avid reader, devouring books that she borrows from the station’s bookseller (Christopher Lee), but for all her enthusiasm and vocabulary she has no adventure. Hugo’s life is nothing but adventure; he loves the movies his father used to take him to — the same ones Isabelle’s godparents have forbidden her to watch. Hugo — like the increasingly popular “hot” media his beloved technology has begun to enable — is desperate for a message, while Isabelle — and her “cool” media — is beginning to feel the need for a life that exists outside her own head.
Scorsese gets excellent performances from his cast. Kingsley is as good as I’ve ever seen him, and Moretz gives an enthusiasm and wonder that never falls over the hammy edge. Even Baron Cohen is remarkably understated, which may be a first for him. As for the visual direction, Scorsese is capable, but it often feels like he’s trying to channel Jean-Pierre Jeunet and not quite pulling it off.
But the thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is his decision to shoot the film in 3-D. Almost nowhere is it noticeable, and most of the scenes where it is have such strong focus cues that the effect would come across just as strongly without the stereography. Méliès himself embraced technology, but he did so in service to telling a story, and the 3-D effects here only get in the way. Still, most of the time it’s not really noticeable at all.
As the secrets of Hugo’s automaton spin out to the clattering of its gears, we get a touching, heartfelt paean to Méliès, and all those pioneers who laid down the basics of what would become our near-universally shared cinematic language. Anyone who loves the movies will find a kindred spirit here.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.