For at least the second time this year, a major auteur film has opened with a flying camera—more accurate to call it a perspective, probably, given its ontology—descending from (a digital) heaven. Where Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust floats above a CG village before settling into a ramble through the (un)natural world, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo begins with a vertiginous descent that only gains speed as it follows a train and barrels into the station that will be its main setting. Leaving the tracks, it continues on its path through the concourse, moving past digital extras, the first of many ghostly presences, before seamlessly entering the realm of the real—that is, the soundstage. The worlds of Lumière (the train: the document of reality) and Méliès (the impossible camera: the spectacle of fantasy) come together, the latter used as a tool to try to restore the long-lost thrill of the former. This is the first moment of Scorsese’s career that could accurately be described as Cameronian; it’s also the first appearance of Hugo’s exceptionally personal cinematic gambit.
As the camera continues to roam about the station in a brisk, mostly wordless sequence, the film lays down its half-dozen or so relationships, eventually coming to focus on a boy peering out from one of this massive station’s numerous clocks; this is our young hero, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield): orphan, tinkerer, voyeur, thief, cinephile, etc. The object of his larcenous gaze is the gadget shop owned by a fictional character who happens to share a name and identity with the aforementioned Méliès. During a snappy bit of cross-cutting between the plotting Hugo and the dozing Méliès, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker smuggle in a beautiful moment: Hugo’s reflection is caught in the old magician’s eye, his unspoken acknowledgment of what’s going on seeming to draw the two closer together through sheer force of will. He knows that this menace, this urchin, will change his life; he must meet him. And of course he does.
The relationship between the two occurs by proxy, mostly through the medium of Méliès’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz, playing as if she were in a silent film). Hugo takes the book-obsessed Isabelle to see her first movie (Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, whose clock gag is used by Scorsese himself later in the film), and having been bonded by the wonders of cinema, they set off on a journey in search of the secret behind a strange robot which, of course, eventually leads to even greater revelations about her godfather’s famous, hidden past. This central redemption narrative moves along nicely and concludes warmly, but it’s mostly notable for affording Scorsese the opportunity to make use of several dozen of Méliès’s films, inserting them lovingly in the proper aspect ratio.
Scorsese’s affection for cinema is, of course, no surprise, and Hugo doesn’t shy away from stumping for the cause of his Film Foundation; which isn’t to say it’s a vanity project, at least not any more than any film with a budget in the nine figures is. His joy in presenting these classic fantasy films is obvious, and not particularly interesting. What makes this his best film since The Age of Innocence is the curious view he takes of both this boy and the sea of artifice in which he’s set adrift.
Following the death of his father in an unexplained museum fire, young Hugo is left in the care of a drunken, deadbeat uncle, who himself disappears and turns up dead (his corpse introduced à la The Trouble with Harry), leaving him alone with nothing but the station’s clocks and a broken robot for company. Given a love of the cinema by his father, but without the money to fund weekly visits, he turns the train station into his own theater, an unseen viewer sheepishly taking in the romances and dangers of the setting; is it so hard to imagine this boy 20 years down the line peeping through his fingers at a porn theater? The little voyeur’s life is complicated further by the presence of a loutish cop (Sacha Baron Cohen) with a strong distaste for orphans (“One doesn’t need parents to grow up”). Though the extent of the direct interactions between Hugo and Baron Cohen’s Inspector never rises much above relatively well executed slapstick, the man’s minor romance with a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) leads to the most affecting exchange of the entire film: Saddled with a large leg brace, the Inspector suddenly confides in this near stranger, “I was injured in the war. It will never heal,” to which she simply and calmly replies, “My brother died in the war.”
Moments such as these (Méliès himself blames World War I for the decline in interest for his movies, the troops having seen too much reality to need his fantasy) pop all the more for emerging in the context of Scorsese’s garishly artificial visuals. His digital Paris, with its plastic gloss surfaces and artificial snow, is less a blue-gold fantasy than it is the dream of a new reality: Once again it’s proven that 3D works not to increase the spectacle, but to make it more contained, more digestible; as Antoine Thirion recently said in Independencia, even the most epic adventure becomes a storm in a glass of water. What’s most intriguing about Scorsese’s glass of water is that it’s capable of allowing in films from the traditional cinema, such as those of Méliès or Safety Last, without infecting them with its bug of digi-artifice: Harold Lloyd dangling precariously above the streets from the hand of a clock remains terrifying, while the same stunt repeated later by Asa Butterfield is nothing more than an exercise in 1’s and 0’s, just as the constant digital snow and breath can never make one think of the cold (compare, for example, with the ice floes of Way Down East).
The film’s failures are nonetheless illuminating. Amid the clockwork, the gears of production grinding perpetually, Hugo, tinkering away at the automaton that will lead him toward his destiny—the resurrection of spectacle in the cinema—will sit and shamefully stand witness to the formation of this new world. Here, the old cinema has become the document, the cinema of Lumière, and the opening has reversed itself: It is the spectacle that must be re-thrilled through a reunion with reality—and the stakes of this are no more or less than the future of the American mainstream film. The dream of this new reality, the digital cinema of traditional values, is the same as the dream of the old artifice: to make people believe.