Confession: I’m a huge fan of Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest storytellers of our generation. At some point in my life I came across this quote from Scorsese: “It is as though movies answered an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.” This philosophy/theology is the backbone for Scorsese’s newest film Hugo.
The film is set in 1930s Paris, with the elegant Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. Hugo (played by Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who lives in the walls of the train station. He knows every nook and cranny of the building. He observes carefully the daily activities of the train station regulars in order to snatch food when able. In between snatching food for survival and keeping the clocks in the station running in the absence of his drunken uncle, he carefully observes the old man at the toy booth. He patiently waits until the old man—whom we later learn is George Méliés (Ben Kingsley), a great filmmaker—falls asleep to sneak up to the booth and grab spare parts.
The spare parts are for the hidden automaton that Hugo’s father (Jude Law) was fixing. This is the only remaining thing he has to connect with his dead father. The mystery of the automaton leads Hugo and his new friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), George’s goddaughter, on an adventure through the magical world of cinema that leads to the true identity of George Méliés.
Scorsese, in his own right, is a film scholar. As such, the film brilliantly weaves the humble beginnings of silent film into a story about the quest for purpose. The nonworking automaton represents broken humanity. “If we lose our purpose,” Hugo says, “it’s like we’re broken.” There are pieces missing that we must find in order to fulfill our purpose. The missing piece for George is reclaiming his past in the film industry he has tried to bury. “Forgetting the past only brings unhappiness,” Hugo’s wisdom continues.
Remembering the past, something Hugo does throughout the film as he tries to piece together the mystery of the automaton, is something that George is reluctant to do. The film turns the typical understanding of the wise old man teaching the young boy on its head—much like Jesus did in the Gospels. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To change and become like a child is to reject standards—the “norms”—of the world. This is the contrast the film presents between Hugo/Isabelle and George. The standards of the world do not heavily influence Hugo and Isabelle. George has seen too much, experienced too much, lost too much to the point where remembering is painful. Hugo and Isabelle scheme to bring the last surviving film made by George to George. This moment of viewing this film together becomes, as the Scorsese quote above says, the fulfillment of “a spiritual need.” For George the past he was trying so hard to forget, was his very identity as a filmmaker. Discovering who we are is indeed a spiritual quest.
In short, the film is brilliant in every way. Scorsese uses the medium of 3D to enhance his storytelling capabilities. I have to agree with James Cameron when he said at the Director’s Guild in LA, “It’s absolutely the best 3D photography that I’ve seen.” Except for the awkward 3D glasses you have to wear, you don’t realize it’s a “3D film.” It’s more than that. Scorsese pushes this technology and embraces it, as Cameron says, as part of his medium. So, while I’m not a huge fan of 3D, I have become a fan of Scorsese’s 3D, and hope to see more 3D films like this one. Like many things, 3D is far superior in the hands of Martin Scorsese.