In an earlier recommendation, I described The Muppets (2011) and two other autumn releases, Hugo (2011) and The Artist (2011), as attempting to conjure up memories of prior art and entertainment. While I lauded The Muppets, I could not comment on the other two. My extended winter vacation finally provided me the space and time to see one of the other films, Hugo; however, more than ten days after seeing it, I still do not know if I want to recommend it. Hugo obviously surpasses The Muppets in many areas, yet, despite numerous technical and visual accomplishments, I cannot remember having fun at any point while viewing Hugo. (On the other hand, I all remember from The Muppets is having fun.)
Hugo’s greatest achievement is the gorgeousness of the cinematography and flawlessness of the editing: two trademarks of nearly every Martin Scorsese directed film. Scorsese luxuriates over the Paris train station and the labrynthine clock tower in which the film’s action takes place. Whether Scorsese directs our gaze to the internal workings of the station or the external view, nearly every shot is beautifully rendered.
The orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the young boy who keeps the machinery of the clock operating smoothly and succinctly, ambles through gears and mechanisms, climbs up precarious ladders, and crawls through ominous tunnels. Indeed, he appears safe and comfortable within the confines of the machine. Only when he ventures outside into the streets of Paris do we see him as vulnerable.
Of course Hugo is always vulnerable. He is an orphan and has the most gloriously heart-breaking blue eyes imaginable. Any cheesy pick-up lines that expound upon the beauty of someone’s eyes actually apply to Butterfield’s baby blues. They shimmer with beauty and communicate his innocence and inner virtue.
In the end, we know that Hugo will be alright because the gruff silent film director George Melies, played by a gruff Ben Kingsley, will bely his uncaring exterior and show himself to have a kind, tender heart. We know that Hugo will be alright because Melies’s god-daughter Isabelle, played by the Jodie Foster-ish Chloe Grace Moretz, will take a shine to him as an object of young romance. We know that Hugo will be alright because the film, in the midst of all of its visual brilliance, fails to tell an interesting story or produce interesting characters, all of whom are so terribly predictable. Scorsese even managed to mangle a role played by the incomparable Sacha Baron Cohen, who played the dastardly gendarme. Given Cohen’s prior roles, it would appear difficult to make him dull, but Hugo does just that.
Everyone ends up happy, and everything works out for the best. Hugo finds a family. Melies finds redemption. And everyone else finds love, but I did not care because Hugo never allowed me to care. The film announced its narrative from the beginning, so there was no need to see it through. And yes, most narratives are predictable. I had little doubt that Kermit and his gang would emerge victorious in The Muppets, but at least I remained interested in the fates of the characters in The Muppets. The most damning criticism that I have of Hugo is that I stopped caring about the characters even though the camera made their visages gorgeous.
Despite what I see as its narrative hollowness, I cannot not recommend Hugo. The film’s technical aspects as well as its ideas of merging art and science, inspiration and precision, and magic and machinery make a wonderful thesis for a film studies paper. Scorsese and his film clearly love the origins of the art of cinema. And Hugo does offer up new ways of looking at older art.
I actually believe that Scorsese does a wonderful job of figuratively filming the inside of the camera. The constant focus on clocks, cameras, automatons, and various other mechanisms represent an effort to climb inside the machine that produces cinema. Scorsese wants to see how it operates and produces its magic. The examination of the production of film and why we are entranced by it easily reprsents the films most fascinating aspect, and it has kept me pondering the meaning of film in and of itself.
However, that examination does not make for a great film; it could very well have been a wonderful Master’s thesis or an excellent journal article. Hugo simply does not perform the very cinematic actions it seeks to celebrate.
My final summation of Hugo can be found in the scene in which Isabelle sees a film, a Harold Lloyd silent picture, for the first time. As Lloyd crawls out onto the ledge of a building and dangles from a clock’s minute hand (a famous scene that is deliberately referenced later), Isabelle clutches Hugo’s arm. She is lost in and enthralled with the moving images before her. Never once while watching Hugo did I share Isabelle’s emotions.