This past Sunday I went with the Steel City Steam Society to see Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011) at a local movie theater. Yes, we were in full steampunk gear. Yes, we received strange looks. And I think the guy sitting in one of the rows we ended up occupying in the theater did not appreciate our presence. But we were respectful and quiet when the film started, and settled in to a 3-D experience involving much clockwork, dogs, snow, and even an automaton.
As a tribute to his beloved and deceased father, Hugo steals clockwork parts to complete an automaton that his father had been trying to fix before he died. His attempts to honor his father in dishonorable ways gets him into trouble with the station's resident toy maker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), and eventually a relationship (albeit usually hostile) develops between the two. Soon Hugo begins to discover a mysterious link between his father's automaton and the old toymaker. With the help of Méliès' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), he tries to unravel the mystery.
Set in 1930s Paris, the film follows the story of Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield), a young orphan living behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse railway station, where he steals to eat and winds the station's clocks to deter suspicion that his uncle, his legal guardian has been missing for the past few months. In the process he must avoid Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), the station inspector, who has a keen eye for thieving orphans, if not a quick-springing mechanical leg brace.
|image source: Front Row Reviews|
First things first: despite the plethora of gears and clockwork integral to this movie's setting and plot, this movie is not steampunk. It didn't appear to be so from the trailers, but one has to investigate anyway.
That being said, there is a lot to recommend this movie to a steampunk or Victorian enthusiast or a history buff such as myself. The history of motion pictures, from its early days in the 1890s to about WWI, as well as the machinery that went along with the new art of cinematography at that time, was certainly explained concisely for the audience. The story also follows the biography of the real-life Georges Méliès very closely, something that I was pleasantly surprised to discover when I actually researched the movie further when I got home from the theater.
Another historical plus is a dream sequence that mimics the Gare Montparnasse railway derailment of 1895. I was not aware of the details of that incident until I saw this movie, although I have featured images of it on my blog before:
|image source: Wikipedia|
One remarkable thing to note about this movie is its ability to transcend labels. Although advertised as a "fantasy family film," I would strongly recommend it to any adult to go see by themselves. There weren't any corny bits, the kids didn't act like idiots, and even the somewhat "comical" Station Inspector is not unrealistically so for the most part.
But movie's message really cinches the universality of this story. It is, at heart, a reminder that everyone has a purpose in life. As Hugo himself tells his friend Isabelle:
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.
The only cons was the entire 3-D experience. I had a mild but sharp and consistent headache from the previews to the credits. It did nothing to add to the story, and often took away from looking at other aspects of each scene. Why is 3-D such a big trend now? *groan*