If ever there was a movie made for movie critics, it is Hugo. Directed by Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), the film, based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick, is on its surface a bright and colourful 3D fantasy about a Parisian orphan boy in the 1930s, whose friendship with the granddaughter of an enigmatic toy-shop owner yields secrets about his own relationship with his father. But peel back that layer and what you’ll find is a love letter: a love letter to early cinema and one of its foremost pioneers; a love letter that has been immediately embraced by a critical community who have fallen head over heels with the pictures reverence for an art-form – movies – that they themselves also revere. In the face of such earnest and unabashed celluloidal enthusiasm, it’s perhaps understandable that those same critics have failed to recognise one thing. On some very basic levels, Hugo just isn’t very good.
It’s an easy mistake to make. Indeed, the opening shot – which begins amidst the whirring cogs of a gigantic clock which then slowly fade to reveal the lights of Paris by night – is so utterly breathtaking that it alone might be enough to permanently dumbfound the less discerning. In the same singular take, Scorsese’s camera zooms through the streets and across the bustling halls of Gare Montparnasse railway station before settling on another clock-face. And behind this clock-face lives Hugo (Asa Butterfield; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas). Once the son of a clockmaker (Jude Law; Contagion), the sudden death of his father in a museum fire left Hugo orphaned, with nothing to remind him of his old life other than a human sized mechanical figure – called an Automaton – the he hopes might contain a message from his father.
What surprises most about Hugo is how lacking it is in both stakes and momentum. Despite the fact that our hero spends a lot of time running from the cruel-hearted station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen; Bruno), there is hardly any sense of peril to this film, and zero sense of conflict. When the secret of the automation is eventually uncovered, the story swings abruptly off in another direction, resulting in awkward pacing problems and a climax that feels forced and underwhelming. All the while, the unrelated exploits of minor characters – such as the romance between a café-owner and her chubby patron – recalls Amélie so distinctly that it would be distracting even if I wasn’t one of the few people on earth who considers that movie overrated as well.
As Hugo himself, Asa Butterfield’s line delivery is stilted and awkward; as the wide-eyed owner of a heart-shaped key that will bring the automation to life, Chloe Grace Moretz is even more disappointing. After three times impressing us as girls wise far beyond their years in Kick-Ass, Let Me In and (500) Days of Summer, perhaps she’s just not capable of simply acting her age? But neither child is as cringe-worthy as Sacha Baron Cohen, whose high-voiced performance – meant to be funny – is quite simply unbearable to watch. Ben Kingsley (Shutter Island) on the other hand plays the toy-shop owner, an elderly man whose past is connected to the birth of an art form, with a quiet sadness and dignity. The other highlight is Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) who enters the picture in its second half as an enthusiastic film historian whose presence is vastly endearing.
Eventually — spoiler alert! — Hugo is revealed to be a movie about the birth and history of movies themselves, and particularly the work of Georges Méliès, the silent film pioneer. Unfortunately Scorsese – so caught up in his adoration of Méliès – wades far too deep into romanticism. Time and time again characters speak about the magic and wonder of going to the movies, to the point that the effect becomes diminishing – self sabotaging even. Similarly, as much as I, a student of cinema, enjoy catching glimpses of classic films like The Great Train Robbery and Trip to the Moon when they flash across the screen, they don’t serve a whole lot of narrative point. Indeed, the second half of Hugo frequently feels less like a story and more like a lesson in film history.
Scorsese regains some ground with his visual filmmaking. Hugo is by far the directors most CG laden project to date, and new technologies have allowed him to craft some absolutely sumptuous images: alongside the opening, a time lapse shot of a building disintegrating under the elements is one of the most memorable sequences of the year. Unfortunately, it is diminished by the 3D. People have called this the best use of live-action 3D since Avatar, and they’re right. But it doesn’t matter. I will repeat this mantra until the day that I die: 3D filmmaking does not replicate how the eye sees three dimensions. 3D films look less like reality than 2D films. With the exception of certain animations, 3D films are NEVER WORTH PAYING FOR.
As I wrote in my review of this years likely best picture winner The Artist, 2011 may well be remembered as the year that Hollywood’s obsession with its own history reached new and unprecedented heights. Movies about movies are in vogue at the moment, although the disastrous box-office takings of this film suggest that viewers don’t care for the trend in the same way that critics and filmmakers do. In any case, where films like The Artist, Super 8 and even Hobo with a Shotgun all trump Hugo is in their narrative. Those films all pay tribute to a style of cinema – be it silent movies, Spielberg movies or gory, nasty Grindhouse movies – that their directors love and cherish. But they also tell a compelling story. Hugo simply does not. Scorsese’s latest is well-meaning nostalgia, but hollow.