I’m counting AVATAR, the highest-grossing film of all time, when I say that Martin Scorsese’s HUGO is the only 3D movie that actually matters. Like, ever. (Yes, that also includes ‘Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses.’) In fashioning a tribute to the birth of cinema and its spectacular roots while using state-of-the-art modern technique, Scorsese’s put up another magnum opus on the board, but it’s one that’s unlike anything he’s attempted before: a PG-rated children’s fantasy that’s as ambitious as it is satisfying, as stylistically intricate as it is basic in message. Leave it to the man to reach so far - and yet nothing, it seems, is beyond his grasp. Ladies and Gentleman, presenting Martin Scorsese, master of family entertainment. No shit.
HUGO opens with a high angle shot over 1920’s Paris, which whooshes us down into the Montparnasse train station, and then into its inner-workings and the boy who lives in the gears and cogs of the place. Yes, it sounds like the Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS times a crillion, and yes, it is every bit as dazzling as it might be. Set to Howard Shore’s melancholy-waltz main theme, the first ten minutes of HUGO are as thrilling as that legendary entry to the Copa – which is not to say the two hours that follow won’t melt your eyeballs with marvel after marvel. Will they ever, brother.
Played by Asa Butterfield, young Hugo is first seen looking out from within a clock, observing the regulars of Montparnasse (a moment that evokes REAR WINDOW, by a director who also notably experimented with 3D during its initial heyday.) From out of his hidden vantage, Hugo is drawn into an adventure involving a mechanical automaton left to him by his father (Jude Law,) a mysterious toymaker (Sir Ben Kingsley,) and sharp young Isabelle played by the formidable Chloe Grace Moretz, who may or may not secretly be 40 years-old like Emmanuel Lewis… Hugo & Isabelle’s journey not only enriches their understanding of themselves and their place in the world, but of the history of motion pictures. To give away more would be rude; let’s just say HUGO is a film about film that’s reflexive in a way that feels sincerely reverent, not self-indulgent. This is Scorsese the student and Scorsese the auteur in perfect harmony of vision. That he literally re-creates the special effects of silent films in digital 3D is an achievement that may or may not bring tears to your eyes. It did to mine… I mean, uh, it was those damned glasses, I swear!
AVATAR, the world-conquering blue oaf, presented a planet that intoxicated crillions not with of its story, (ahem, ‘Unobtainium,’) but with the depth of its visuals. The conceit that narratively justified its use of 3D – that we were experiencing the world through new eyes, the eyes of a Na’vi – is dwarfed by Scorsese’s conceit. In HUGO, we’re presented with a rich metaphor in which we viewers are participants in the machinery of what we’re taking in. Our interaction with the 3D environment of the film is the very purpose of it. HUGO is about the power of movies to shape human beings and the way in which that makes human beings inseparable from them. In the world of HUGO, people are cinema, and cinema – the viewing and the making of it – is a pure extension of what it is to be alive.
All this theorizing would be empty if the film didn’t have a palpable emotional effect, but HUGO made me feel truly alive. OK, that sounds drippingly sentimental, but the emotional appeal of HUGO is aligned totally with its thesis: it is a machine to make you feel – like activating an automaton – and that it does, more than any other film this year… and maybe more than anything Marty’s ever done.
If you care about cinema, about its past or its future, you really have no choice but to see HUGO, in a theater, in 3D. And if you miss your chance to see HUGO in a theater in 3D, all I can say is, I’m sorry.
Arclight Theater, Hollywood
Sunday November 27, 4:45pm showing