Co-directed with Michael Henry Wilson, it explores Scorsese’s favourite American films grouped according to three different types of directors:
Illusionist: Pioneers such as D.W. Griffith or F. W. Murnau, who helped create new editing techniques among other innovations that created the basic blueprint for film grammar and which laid the groundwork for the later appearance of sound and colour.
The latest filmmaking technology provides Martin Scorsese with the tools to create a passionate love letter to the early days of cinema.
Adapted from Brian Selznick’s illustrated book, the story explores what happens when a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a 1930s Paris train station comes across an older man selling toys at a stall.
That man (Ben Kingsley) may literally have the key to the mysterious robotic automaton Hugo’s late father (Jude Law) left behind before perishing in a fire.
With the constant threat of being taken away to an orphanage by the local police inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) Hugo finds out more about ‘Papa Georges’ by befriending his granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz).
Although best known for his masterful explorations of the American male (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed) he has long shown an interest in stories involving martyrs and redemption.
His most controversial film (The Last Temptation of Christ) and perhaps his most overlooked (Kundun) were both about spiritual figures of major religions.
Now the director turns to the religion of film and one of its key pioneers, Georges Melies, who for many years was largely forgotten after World War I.
Despite Hugo being something of a departure for the director in that it is suitable for family audiences, it is also one of his most personal works.
It isn’t a stretch to read the central character as the young asthmatic New Yorker who fell deeply in love with cinema or even Melies as the director who represents his fears (rejection) and dreams (longevity).
In order to achieve this vision he has recruited a glittering array of world class technical talent.
Dante Ferretti’s detailed production design offers us a fantastical recreation of 1930s Paris, which is skilfully augmented by Sandy Powell’s costumes and Rob Legato’s visual effects work.
The blending of all these design elements is dazzling, filled with detail and depth, which provides a solid basis for Robert Richardson’s stunning 3D photography.
Visually, this is done with recurring motifs: wheels turning, trains, clocks and objects coming towards the camera, which are brought to life by a use of 3D which enhances, rather than distracts from them.
Although Scorsese has talked about the adjustment he and Richardson had to make coming from the world of 35mm film, the end result is a master class in digital cinematography, filled with stunning compositions and rich layers of detail.
The performances don’t quite match the visuals, but Butterfield and Moretz do enough to convince in their roles, whilst Kingsley paints a convincing picture of a man haunted by regret.
In supporting roles Sacha Baron Cohen’s mannered comic performance is somewhat overshadowed by his dog, but Helen McCrory and Christopher Lee are both touching in key minor roles.
John Logan’s screenplay manages to blend the traditional storytelling elements of the book, whilst also providing a neat framework for Scorsese to explore his own inner passion for movies and film preservation.
Without going into spoiler territory, there are numerous references to the Lumiere brothers, the silent era and 1930s French cinema.
The beauty of these hat tips is that – like the 3D – they do actually serve the story rather than function as a commercial indulgence.
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing also skilfully blends key flashback scenes, numerous chase sequences in the station and archive footage of classic cinema works which brilliantly concentrated down to their essence.
It is also refreshing to see a family film is respectful to audiences of all ages and not a pat morality or coming-of-age tale filled with lazy in-jokes.
Unlike many contemporary films, it actually rewards patience and curiosity, before climaxing with a moving ode to both the art and experience of cinema itself.
Beneath the fantastical surface there are serious emotions and one can sense the ghost of Michael Powell – a neglected director Scorsese helped revive interest in.
Perhaps the most surreal aspect of Hugo is that a $150 million advert for film preservation is going to be screened digitally in multiplexes around the globe.
Like the early work of Melies, it seems like a form of magic that this film even exists.
Two years ago Scorsese joined the event live via satellite from New York City and his 20-minute address was moderated by Grover Crisp, the man in charge of film restoration and digital mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
In the run up to Christmas sales of the home video format will be under renewed scrutiny, but it is worth looking at what was said via video of the event which someone has posted online in three parts:
Part 3: More on the Dr. Strangelove restoration and the dilemmas involved in doing it, Scorsese’s favourite film on Blu-ray, whether he considers the Blu-ray release before shooting a film and the benefits to future generations of filmmakers.
All this is interesting, not just because Scorsese is such a passionate authority on film, but because there is still is some confusion over the Blu-ray format.
The main problems have been: the needless format war which delayed the adoption of the format; mainstream confusion over how it differs from DVD; the costs of upgrading to a player and the recession.
I remember being sceptical about both high-definition disc formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) when they were given their first major marketing push in the run up to Christmas of 2007.
Was its introduction too soon after DVD?
I was invited to a screening of The Bourne Ultimatum on HD-DVD (still available on Amazon for some reason), projected in a cinema and the three guys there (publicity people mainly, but also a someone from Microsoft, who were involved in the format) were very bullish about why it would succeed and Blu-ray wouldn’t.
Two months later in February 2008 the HD-DVD format was dead, as Toshiba (the main electrical company behind the format) couldn’t sustain the costs after studios and retailers sided with Blu-ray.
During 2008 the cost of Blu-ray discs and systems was still relatively high, even though television was shifting to the HD era and it became hard to actually buy old-style analogue television sets.
The Dark Knight in late 2008 was perhaps the first truly blockbuster disc in the format, even though – compared to DVD – overall sales were still sluggish and anecdotally even people in the media I spoke to were confused, sceptical or didn’t care.
The main misunderstanding I encountered was the worry that DVDs couldn’t play on a Blu-ray player (they can) and just scepticism about upgrading their equipment.
At the moment, the adoption of the format is still being hobbled by the resilience of the DVD format (a lot of great titles are still really cheap) and a lingering sense of confusion about Blu-ray outside the home video/cinephile realm.
There is a three-way split between DVD, Blu-ray and digital downloads (if you include Netflix, iTunes etc) but optical discs might be more resilient than people think.
Although there are analogies with where the music industry was ten years ago, the recent problems at Netflix suggest that the adoption of digital downloads and streaming might be slower than you think.
Which brings us back to Scorsese.
His point that Blu-ray offers the best quality and drives the restoration of classic films (a subject very close to his heart) are good ones and in a year of sequels and remakes at the cinema, releases like Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Ben Hur and The Three Colours Trilogy have been most welcome.
Seeing classic films that have been restored with care and attention is a real joy that reminds you of the craft that originally made them so great.