Talking Pictures in Review: Hugo

These days, it seems like when I see a film, I already know a good bit about it, i.e., the subject matter/plot, who’s in it, etc. After all, a few clicks of a mouse can usually bring you more that you sometime want to know about an upcoming movie. But despite this, and the fact that Hugo was helmed by the celebrated Martin Scorsese and had already won Academy Awards by the time I saw it, I had somehow managed to remain largely in the dark about the film itself. 

When I finally did decided to watch it, I planned on viewing just the first half (it was late) and then finishing it the next night. However, being very pleasantly surprised by what I was watching, that plan soon went out the window. I was willingly drawn into this story of a young orphan boy trying to fit together the pieces of a unfolding puzzle, all while negotiating his considerably challenging world. 

1. Hugo demonstrates artistic excellence.

Hugo has a lot to offer in this respect. First it’s a visually rich film, as witnessed by the fact that it captured Oscars for art direction, visual effects, and cinematography. And though I wasn’t able to see the film in the original 3D, I did run across a quote from director James Cameron (himself no stranger to the technology) to the effect that he thought it was the finest use of the medium he’d ever seen. 

The film also contains a number of extremely capable acting performances. Both the Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz shine as the two young protaganists (Hugo and Isabelle, respectfully), with the latter delivering a particularly charismatic performance (while affecting an accent no less). Ben Kingsley expertly handles what turns out to be a multi-faceted role in Georges Melies. And Sasha Baron Cohen, in a role considerably different from his normal fare, certainly delivers as the station inspector. These performances—Kingsley’s in particular—help insure that the film demonstrates both character and plot development. 

2. The film operates on two compelling levels.

One the one hand, it’s a classic story, filled with well-loved conventions and archetypes:

  • An orphan boy wrenched away from happy circumstances, facing a hardscrabble existence and searching for and eventually finding his place in the world.
  • A key friendship that develops, serving as a kind of lifeline.
  • A gruff, even frightening older character, about whom there turns out to be more than meets the eye.
  • According to Kingsley: the myth of a lost man guided back to life by the hands of a child.
  • There is significant redemption in the end, so that we’re left with a “they all lived happily ever after” sense at the closing credits. 

Hugo’s embrace of convention is nearly the opposite of something like the last Talking Pictures feature, The Tree of Life. But in my judgment at least, it escapes the banal/sentimental and instead produces a very satisfying result. 

On another level, however, Hugo is an homage to the art and power of filmmaking. This, too, comes out in several ways:

  • Shots that pay tribute to classic scenes and characters from the history of film.
  • Side vignettes with little dialog, functioning almost as brief silent films themselves.  
  • One of the great early pioneers of the cinema turns out to be a main character within the film.
  • We see multiple characters speak to their love for the cinema and the effect it produced on them.
  • The very fact that the story has so many conventional elements functions as a kind of nod to what has gone before, elements that filmmakers have used again and again because they resonate so well. 

One can justifiably say that Hugo is, in a significant way, a film about film. 

3. Hugo reflects a biblical worldview in a handful of important respects.

Three things come to mind along these lines. First, it rightly recognizes that movies are powerful; they can resonate deeply with us, captivating and moving us in a number of ways. Almost all of us already know this, at least intuitively. Our experience certainly affirms it.  (I will never forget watching Star Wars as a five-year-old and being enthralled by its fantastic new world. I remain so, despite three mediocre prequels—I say it with sadness, to this day.) To borrow a phrase from the film, Hugo “addresses us as we really are”: as people who are captivated by creativity. 

Secondly, the film speaks to our need for a purpose and a place. Much like the intricate parts of the machinery Hugo fixes and tends, he longs to “fit.” He is looking not only for a calling, but also a family. All of us long for the same. We want a role to play and place where we belong, where we’re loved. 

Finally and as previously noted, the story reflects a great deal of redemption. Several things about the situation as we first find it aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. Hugo, the automaton, Papa Georges, even the station inspector—they all need fixing after a fashion. By the end of the film, they are.  And while some might find this a bit too tidy (“it never works that way in real life”), it remains exactly what we all long for. We see the brokenness, both within and without, and we long for it to be mended. 

Each of these points speaks to a common human experience. And it should be no surprise that the Christian faith acknowledges and addresses all of them. Why are we captivated by the art of film? Because we’re made in the image of one who both creates and delights in what he’s made. Do we fit in this world? Can we find a place to belong? A biblical perspective understands that God has uniquely called and gifted all of us for a role in his cosmic drama. Not only so, but he invites us, through the gospel, to become beloved members of his own family. Is there a remedy for our brokenness, as well as that of the world around us?  That’s exactly what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will accomplish: a redeemed people living in a renewed creation. 

In light of all of this, Hugo is more than just an entertaining escape. As a hand fits into a glove, it reflects universal realities that are fundamentally addressed by the Christian faith.

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