There's no actual robot in Martin Scorsese's new movie Hugo — although there is a totally gorgeous clockwork man, whose workings are nothing short of magical. But the whole movie is a celebration of the earliest roots of our rising cyber-culture, and the ways in which people use technology to tell stories that live on after we're gone.
Hugo is Scorsese's celebration of silent movies, and the roots of movie-making in general, and it's a cinematic marvel. This is a movie about people who love machines, and who communicate in elaborate ways using machines instead of simply writing shit down, and who have emotional relationships with machines more rich and potent than most of us have with other humans.
And anybody who loves elaborate mechanisms and strange technologies should adore the gear fetishism running through Hugo. Scorsese's gorgeous camera work pays loving attention to the workings of wind-up machines, clockwork mechanisms, giant clocks and railroad trains. Just a single wind-up mouse becomes a magical creature under Scorsese's intense gaze. The whole thing is a beautiful mechanical box, with a perfect crystal heart.
In Hugo, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in the train station, where he was supposed to be apprenticed to his alcoholic uncle working on the station clocks. Now abandoned, Hugo looks after the clocks on his own, and meanwhile he tries to repair a mechanical man his father found, an automaton. The impassive little bronze man is the last thing Hugo has left of his father, and he's determined to repair the automaton at all costs. So Hugo steals parts from the little toy shop at the railway station — until he gets caught.
The automaton turns out to be the handiwork of Georges Méliès, the pioneer of silent film and arguably the director of the first science fiction and fantasy movies. And the movie turns into a tribute to Méliès' work and the amazing gadgets and props he created. We see how Méliès started out as a stage magician, before discovering the new technology of the movie camera and seeing it as a way to create the grandest illusions, and the greatest wonder, of his career. This is a deeply moving film that actually got me choked up towards the end, largely thanks to Ben Kingsley's amazing performance.
So yeah, this isn't a movie about artificial intelligence or steampunk robots — but it shares something profound with the best A.I. stories. There's often a profound human emotion that brings the computer to sentience and creates a living cyber-mind. In this case, Hugo's grief over the death of his father gives him a strong emotional connection with the salvaged automaton, which in turn brings it to life. And Hugo's resurrection of the automaton, due to his grief, drives the whole story forward.
And like I mentioned, this is about people who use technology to tell stories, something which is obviously very close to Scorsese's heart — the work of Méliès lives on, long after his death, enchanting us with his undersea kingdoms and demons and magical creatures and, yes, lunar explorations. The more elaborate the mechanism, the more intense care that goes into every little effect, the more suffused with feeling the result will be. The automaton and all the other clockwork mechanisms in the film are just another way we use machines to open ourselves up to each other, suggests Scorsese.
There's a supreme gentleness and good-nature at the heart of this film. People are basically good and decent, and everybody can be redeemed. Even Christopher Lee is somehow transformed into a figure of pure benevolence and kindness. The meanest character in the film, Sacha Baron-Cohen's Station Inspector, is redeemed partly by turning him into a kind of clockwork cyborg.
The biggest criticism I could see anybody having of it is that it's an old-fashioned sort of movie, in which things move at their own pace and nothing explodes. The biggest special-effects disaster sequence in the movie is a dream sequence. Stuff actually moves fairly quickly in the film, but individual scenes are allowed to breathe and settle in, instead of cutting quickly to the next plot point.
And given that this film is a love letter to Méliès and to film-making generally, it's not surprising that Scorsese puts a lot of energy into clever camera-work. And Hugo becomes one of the few films, in recent years, to use 3D to good effect — up there with Avatar and Drive Angry 3D. In particular, this may be the best use of the "3D zoom" — in which the camera rushes forward across a long space, or through lots of doorways and hallways, and it feels as though you're really moving through space. Scorsese uses the 3D camera to highlight certain magical objects, but also to make the train station feel like a real place.
And there are lots of great little touches where Scorsese pays tribute to movies, including one or two scenes where somebody is remembering the past, and we hear a noisy projector starting up as their flashback unspools as an old movie.
Because the most powerful type of memories are the ones inscribed on, and by, machines. Hugo shows the genesis of our gadget-obsessed world of cellphones and tablet computers and video games and so on. It all comes from our desire for devices that turn us into better magicians, like Méliès himself.