Friday, November 25, 2011

Film’s Future Embraces Its Past in Surprising Hugo

After the explosion early last year that was Avatar, audiences were quickly faced with a barrage of 3D in the theaters. Online and in film news, there was much debate about the legitimacy and future of 3D. Lines were drawn among filmmakers, journalists, critics, and outspoken bloggers (i.e. yours truly). Martin Scorsese was among the great filmmakers who stepped out and argued in support of 3D.

Hugo is his attempt to prove its worth.

What would Scorsese’s 3D picture look like? I must admit I was quite put-off by the film’s trailer, which simply featured generic footage of Sacha Baron Cohen chasing after kids through a train station. It looked like an average kids film. I expected much more from the director of Taxi Driver and The Departed.

I was right to, because it turns out Hugo is much more than it seems – not only exceeding expectations (which were lowered by the trailer), but providing one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had all year.

Hugo is about a boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who secretly manages the clocks throughout a pre-WWII London train station. He sneaks around the station, avoiding capture by the orphan-snatching Station Inspector (Cohen) and stealing here and there in order to survive. Hugo has a desire to fix things, most especially a particular mechanical project his father left behind. This gadget is an automaton, a wind-up humanoid. What does it do once it’s fixed? Well, that’s something that opens the film up to a bigger mystery regarding another character in the film (I won’t reveal who).

Hugo isn’t nearly as much about the mechanical man or the boy as it is about another character’s past life (this is one reason why the title may be the film’s biggest shortcoming). The automaton is both literally and figuratively a device to point our protagonist toward a purpose. It is here that the film begins to reveal itself as something truly special.

Scorsese has tackled the subjects of crime, loyalty, and family in the past. Here, he touches on something perhaps of more personal significance: his passion for film. As a fellow movie lover, I was touched by Hugo, for Scorsese successfully tapped into the joy and adoration of film that many of us share with him.

It moved me nearly to tears.

Scorsese may never have found a better story than Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret to support the legitimacy of 3D. In it, he has found a reflection of film’s earliest days and the innovations of its illusions (some of which seems quaint today). A century later, we watch Hugo knowing how strongly cinema has endured and the industry it’s become. Scorsese chose to have us reflect on this with modern eyes, those black-framed tinted glasses that add depth to what we’re seeing. At one point, a character mentions that film was thought to be a passing fad, no doubt a wink to those glasses on your face.

So, how effective is the 3D in Hugo? Is it just as pointless as in other live-action films we’ve seen? Not only are the visuals highly effective - especially in scenes within the clock tower and at great heights - but 3D is clearly intended as a tool to further engage in the film’s purpose. Without it, a part of Scorsese’s purpose gets lost. This visual device is not an extraneous piece of the whole; “Every part has a purpose,” Hugo states to his new friend Isabella (played with wide-eyed eagerness by Chloe Grace Moretz).

Not being a supporter of 3D home-viewing, I may never see Hugo again once it leaves theaters. However, it gave me an experience Scorsese and no other filmmaker has before: it articulated my love of film.

Do yourself and your kids a favor (especially if they’re 10+) and go experience this film. If it doesn’t remind you why you love going to the movies, it’ll at least introduce you and your kids to a little bit of movie history while successfully dazzling with the latest in movie magic.


Should you see it? Buy tickets (in 3D).

Hugo is now in theaters in both 2D and 3D.