“And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
One of the lyrics from Fleet Foxes' “Helplessness Blues” could almost be an anthem for Martin Scorsese’s newest film, Hugo. Filled with gears and clocks and springs, the film explores the desire to be needed and wanted in a world that moves on too quickly. Based on Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it is the story of Hugo, a young, thieving orphan who maintains the clocks in a Paris railway station. It's a compelling tale that not only entertains but offers the resounding idea that everyone has a part in the function of the world—no matter how large or small.
In the almost-too-long opening sequence showing the station and its inner workings, we meet Hugo (Asa Butterfield) as he runs along the corridors of the station, winding and fixing the clocks. Flashbacks of his father, played by Jude Law, show Hugo as a happy boy, filled with amazement and wonder as his father teaches him to fix clocks and anything else that comes across his workbench. One of his father's many adventures includes finding an automaton, a sort of ancient robot that performs actions when wound up. Hugo’s automaton seems to write, but the message within its gears is yet to be found due to some missing parts.
The film has an incredible cast of actors and actresses, some legendary and some up-and-coming. Ben Kingsley plays the mysterious Georges Méliès, an old toy shop owner at the station and godfather to Hugo's friend, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). Sacha Baron Cohen is the station inspector, smitten with Lisette (Emily Mortimer) the flower shop owner, and bent on capturing all young thieves and sending them to the orphanage. As the film moves along, strong relationships are formed between Georges, Isabelle and Hugo as the three come to understand that people aren’t totally broken, but just sometimes need a little bit of fixing.
Solid casting aside, I wasn’t very impressed with the film at first. It seemed to move slow (though it’s clear the masterful Scorsese delighted in bringing this story to life, especially in 3D, he is prone to linger too long over the details). For those unfamiliar with the book, it can also be a bit confusing. I thought the automaton was the “invention” referred to in the title. But halfway through, I finally began to realize the film wasn’t about the automaton or even about any sort of mechanical invention. The film was about the invention that is ourselves. Hugo needed to fix things because he couldn’t fix himself. Hugo and Georges shared this same broken feeling. Georges was once a famous filmmaker, but his films had been forgotten during the war; Hugo was a lonely orphan, holding on to the last bits of his father’s memory. They both needed to be wanted again—to be fixed.
Beneath the imaginative landscape, the true core of the film lies here in the belief that we are all parts of a bigger machine. Not an Orwellian, dystopic machine, but a beautiful machine that creates life. We all are a cog or a spring, and even though it doesn’t feel like it at times, our parts matter to someone. We all fit somewhere, and it usually takes a few tries to find our place. As Hugo says, “Machines don’t come with extra parts”—and neither do the lives we live. Each action we make and word we say matters to someone or something. Although slow at times, Hugo shows us the adventure and the journey lies in finding out how.
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