They say Hollywood's a machine, but no machine would have greenlighted the 170 million dollar budget of Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The cast features no big box-office draws and, while Martin Scorsese might be the greatest living American film-maker, he has yet to deliver a blockbuster hit in forty years of making movies. Hugo is not only set in the past, but seems in some ways a throwback, filled with simplistic characters and stock situations, and adhering to a convention, questioned by Milos Forman's Amadeus and taken apart by Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, that period films set in continental Europe must be peopled by British accents. Reviews have said Hugo is Scorsese trying his hand at a children's film, and perhaps they've said this because of the simplicity of the storyline and the fact that the main character, Hugo Brevet, is a young orphan, but the film offers few thrills, and the mixture of history and fiction at its heart is hard for children to appreciate.
Who, then, is Hugo made for? It is made for people like me, adult bibliophiles and cinephiles. For people like myself, and there aren't all that many of us, as proven by the film's dismal box-office numbers, Hugo is magical. It takes us back to a time when entire new worlds opened up through books. The last time I felt that way was while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude at age sixteen or seventeen. Hugo brings back that magical newness in combination with the most unchildlike of emotions, nostalgia. We feel like the food critic from Ratatouille who, on taking a bite of the dish of the film's title, finds himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, transported back in time to a precious memory from his rustic childhood. Scorsese orchestrates this play of magic and nostalgia by exploring more flamboyantly than anybody has so far the extravagant visual possibilities offered by 3-D 2.0 (the sweeping opening shots of Casino were impressive enough, but they don't hold a candle to Hugo's breathtaking aerial view of Paris that moves seamlessly into a bustling railway station before following the main character through a succession of intricate corridors leading to rooms leading to ladders leading to more corridors), while telling an intimate story made from an old-fashioned mix of sentiment, comedy and coincidence. It's a unique and unrepeatable melding of past and future.
Briefly, now, to the story itself (spoiler warning): In 1931, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in secret within the walls of Paris's Gare Montparnasse. Hugo has taken over his uncle's job of keeping the giant clocks of the station ticking, in the hope nobody will realise the alcoholic uncle has vanished. He feeds himself by stealing, and also pinches widgets from a toy store in the station's concourse to repair an old automaton that his father was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is caught by the store owner, who turns out, in the end, to be a once-renowned film-maker named Georges Méliès.
Méliès is well-known to film buffs as the pioneer of cinema as fantasy. His most famous movie, made in 1902, involved a journey to the moon. By the time the first World War broke out, Méliès was out of fashion. He had to close down his studio, sell off his props and his beloved automatons, and even hawk his negatives for the silver that could be extracted from them. He ended up running a toy store much like that the one depicted in Hugo.
In the early days of cinema, the days of Méliès pomp, the medium enchanted adults, made them feel like children. Scorsese replicates some of that enchantment felt by early viewers of cinema. But in telling the story of Méliès after his downfall, he reminds us of the dangers inherent in using a technology that is improved constantly and makes what went before feel dated. Books don't date the way films do. Of course, language changes and literary fashions change, but we don't find Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction awkward in the way Méliès's films look awkward today. It's impossible to say which film will age badly and which film will stay vital: who would have predicted, around the time Scorsese made his first film, that Singin' In the Rain would still seem like a masterpiece in 2012 while My Fair Lady and West Side Story would be virtually unwatchable? There is a warning inherent in Hugo that not only will the magic we feel watching it today not be replicable by films until another radical breakthrough in technology is achieved, but it might not be experienced by succeeding generations watching this same film.
Had Méliès been alive, he'd probably have made a film like The Avengers rather than Hugo: a funny, action-packed, cutting-edge entertainer, an unabashed crowd pleaser. The budget for The Avengers, around USD 220 million, wasn't that much greater than the amount allotted to Hugo. For that money, we get an inter-galactic war; a proper good versus evil tale with the appropriate outcome after a frantic climax; a bunch of A- and B-list stars playing familiar comic book characters; and great 3-D, CGI and motion capture. Hardly surprising that The Avengers, like Avatar before it, will realise over ten times its budget. According to Holywood's rule of thumb, a film needs to take in twice its budget to show a profit. At the moment, Hugo has barely scraped past its production expenditure, and will probably never recover marketing costs. I'd like to thank all the people at Paramount Pictures who let their good taste over-ride their accounting skills.