Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (Four and a half stars out of five, or 9/10)
In Short: One of the greatest of recent years; Scorsese’s most magical achievement
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of recent years. It employs a modern special effect (3D) and parallels it with the story of the invention of special effects in the 1890s. It challenges many cinephiles expectations of the 3D medium, which is generally that it is a tacky, pointless gimmick, and reverses them. This is the first film I have ever seen which uses 3D, but does not overuse it. There are no big explosions throwing sharp objects at the screen; adversely, the opening shot consists of the purity and beauty of snowflakes as they pass through the screen and into the audience.
Hugo also taught me another lesson, one I already knew, but was nevertheless shocked to rediscover: never, never, never trust a trailer. The trailer for this film is nothing short of spinelessly atrocious, disastrously formulaic and cliché ridden, the complete opposite of the film itself. It paints the movie as the story of a boy’s adventure through a train station, using largely footage from only the first half of the film. It is in the dazzling second half that the film really shines, and wherein true cinephiles and even those with only a passing interest in film will find themselves glued to the screen in admiration and (for the older cinephiles, or the fans of older movies) nostalgia. The film is a love story, not between two people, but between film lovers and the cinema. The image of the child protagonists, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) watching such classic films as Safety Last has become one of the most legendary images of the year. The only sense in which this film is an adventure – a journey to new places – is that the new places an adventure entails are the places in the screen itself; the magical realms of cinema, the sweeping lands that we are drawn to from the moment we sit in our seat. This point is most emphatic of the early films, and the way audiences were drawn to them with wonder and a magical sense of discovery: they were going to new places and finding new things, simply by staring at a screen. Is there any greater achievement than this?
The titular orphan arrives at these discoveries first as an enemy of their creator. Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner in the 1930s who regards his history as a filmmaker with contempt and bitter regret, a regret which he has used to substitute for his true longing for the wondrous period in which not only was he a selfless king, but he could make whole audiences feel exhilarated and amazed; for him there was no greater achievement. He discovers around the neck of Méliès granddaughter Isabelle a key that matches a lock in an automaton that his father was rebuilding, after a rescue from a museum. He activates the small robot, which promptly draws a sketch of one of cinema’s most iconic images, if not the first great image of cinema: a space rocket striking the moon directly in its ‘eye,’ from Méliès timeless classic La voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). This leads them to the discovery of who Méliès really is, and a wondrous journey of flashbacks triggered by a viewing of the aforementioned classic. Within these flashbacks, we see the evolution of early cinema: Méliès saw the Lumiere Brothers’ original Cinematographe, and built one himself, making hundreds of films over a career of mere years. Despite the fact that many of them were lost, we are greeted with fantastic images from many of them as Méliès recalls their creation.
These flashbacks of those amazing years more than a century ago are vividly beautiful, lusciously recreated and superbly directed. After seeing the film I promptly declared it Scorsese’s best directorial effort since Goodfellas, and while this might not be his best directorial job of his whole career, it is certainly one of, if not the most impressive. If anyone other than Scorsese had directed it, it would be a far poorer film. I gave this film 9/10, and it would’ve been 10, but there are things other than the glorious plot and direction that one notices in the film, and not all of them I enjoyed. For starters, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is a fantastic comedian, is frankly annoying and painful here, and should stick to his more controversial adult comedy, an area where he is arguably more useful. His character, the villain of the film, is still pathetic and unlikable even after he is “transformed” in the end, and his terrible attempts to court a woman are not painful in a funny way, they are just painful. But it is a small criticism, as on a whole he is not a part of many of the more important scenes (not counting the amazing recreation of Harold Lloyd hanging from clock hands) and does the job as a suitably contemptuous and heartless villain.
Nitpicks aside, Hugo is of course one of the greatest films of the year, and right up there with Day for Night (1973) as one of the best films about how fun it can be to make a movie, or just simply watch one. Francois Truffaut, the director of Day for Night, once said something beautiful that I see as as good a place as any to finish this review:
“The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a movie theatre, is to go down to the front and turn around, and look at all the uplifted faces, the light from the screen reflected upon them.”