Director: Martin Scorsese, 2011. (PG)
Based on his recent films, such as Shutter Island, The Departed and The Aviator, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese making a family friendly film where violence is replaced by vivacity, adventure replaces avarice, and crime is supplanted by charm. Yet he has done that with Hugo, this wonderful film that is based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 award-winning book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that was part story, part graphic novel. Moreover, Scorsese manages to include his ever-present theme of redemption and his love of film history and preservation. In so doing, he demonstrates a resurgent optimism that is infectious.
The plot centers on Hugo (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) throughout the first two acts, then orbits Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley, Elegy), a real-life figure, in the closing act. It is part adventure, part mystery, all feel-good.
Hugo is an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. Avoiding the officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat), he winds the clocks to keep them working, and then steals food to keep his body working. He also forages for mechanical parts to repair an automaton, a mechanical man his father brought home. His father (Jude Law, Repo Men), a watchmaker, passed on these fix-it skills to Hugo, but tragically died in a fire. Melies, meanwhile, runs a toy shop in the same station, making clockwork toys for kids to buy. Both have secrets to discover.
When Hugo’s life intersects with Melies, he meets Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), another orphan who lives with Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne Melies (Helen McCrory). She is a book-worm but craves adventure. Together, they embark on an adventure while introducing each other to favorite activities.
Butterfield and Moretz have marvellous youthful chemistry together, and portray the wonder of discovery well. They carry their own alongside veteran actors like Kingsley and Christopher Lee.
Isabelle brings Hugo into a dusty bookstore, where books hold all the adventures she has experienced. Hugo, in turn, takes her to the movie theater, sneaking her in to see a Harold Lloyd silent film. This is her first movie experience, and it is eye-opening. She is filled with awe and wonder, as we are at the terrific use of 3D in this film. If you see it, try to see it in this medium. From the opening chase through the station, as Hugo avoids people and the police, to the expansive views of Paris, the 3D works to enhance the film experience. My favorite use is the slow zoom of the camera into a talking head until the head fills the screen. When this happens, the head is rendered in lifelike 3D like it is right there in front of you. And we forget it is a 3D illusion.
And here is the beginnings of the focus on film that predominates the third act. David Roark, in his review for Christianity Today, describes one character talking about film in the movie:
he paints a beautiful picture of film, describing it as something special and miraculous. His words evoke the theories of the renowned French film critic, Andre Bazin, whose work began soon after the death of Melies. Bazin believed that every shot of film reflects God manifesting creation, a concept that Hugo implies.Film is the medium of the masses in this day and age. The power of film is in the dreams they stir up, as one character says at the end, “Come dream with me.” And just as God created in the beginning (Gen. 1-2), so the film-makers create something new with each new movie. But many miss the fact that the films can be an avenue to meet God. Robert Johnston, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, commented in his book, “Reel Spirituality”: “God can be experienced through film’s stories and images in a myriad of ways, and these experiences both invite theological dialogue and feed into our constructive theology.” God can speak to us through the movies, if we are open and willing to listen.
If film is perhaps the over-riding theme, tying all three acts together, another moves Hugo towards his discovery. He is consumed with trying to fix the automaton, believing it contains a message of some kind from his father. He needs a key to unlock the secret and turn his machine on. Explaining his passion to Isabelle, he reveals his philosophy: “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” He goes on, drawing out the implications: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose . . . it’s like you’re broken.”
Broken people have lost their purpose. We are all broken people, damaged by original sin (Gen. 3) and we have lost our reason for being, our purpose. Only when we are restored to wholeness in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23) can we find our intended purpose. Spiritual healing precedes spiritual service.
Of course, this is not to say that people who have broken bodies have no purpose. Some find their true purpose after tragedy strikes. Christian speaker, writer and artist Joni Eareckson-Tada discovered her mission in life after she was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was 17. She has used her art, even as a paraplegic, to broadcast the gospel of Jesus Christ, and probably reached more people than she ever would if she were unbroken in body.
Like Hugo, we all have a place in the world. None of us are extra parts. God has formed us in his image (Gen. 1:26) and placed in us a passion and a purpose. We are unique; we all have special skills and gifts that differentiate ourselves from others. Finding these gifts and our place is key. Like the key that unlocked Hugo’s automaton, we need to search out our raison d’etre and then seek to use these gifts for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
In the church, we know that we have different spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12, Rom 13:3-8). We cannot choose them, and should not envy others what we don’t have. We must be satisfied with the uniqueness God has gifted us. We fit with each other and when any withdraw and refrain from using our gifts, we all suffer. There are no extra parts in the church.
By the time Hugo closes, the boy has discovered the secret, dealt with his father’s death and found personal redemption through finding his place. He has learned the message in the machine and has been reconciled to Melies. Melies, in turn, has found forgiveness, self-forgiveness and experienced redemption, too. And we the audience have been transported through the medium of 3D film to 1930s Paris and experienced the joys of classic film through the marvels of modern movie technology. It’s worth the price of admission.
Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs