Hugo, The Oscars, and Sad Nostalgia
I recently tried to enjoy Hugo. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Besides a wealth of Oscar attention, the film had strong production talent behind it, a wonderful community of good actors (many recognizable from the Harry Potter series), and an overwhelmingly attractive visual design.
So what went wrong?
Unfortunately, too much. Watching the film was like watching all that’s negative about modern Hollywood wreak havoc upon a good film in real-time. What clearly began as a sweet, compelling seed of a story—complete with charming characters, imaginative ideas, and opportunities for sumptuous visual flair—soon collapsed under the weight of bizarre choices, misguided effort, and flat out poor direction.
One of the strangest aspects of the film, stranger than the fact that such an utterly poor script was allowed to develop around such a beautiful core concept, was the presence of many little details that betray a significant weakness in directorial merit on the part of Mr. Scorsese, whose legacy needs no introduction and—one would think—needs no defending.
Except Hugo is simply a weak film. Weak on so many levels, and in such crucially telling ways, that it becomes impossible to look at it critically without worrying about the master filmmaker at its helm. What happened? Why was the editing so noticeable, so abrupt, so out of step with the world it was portraying? Why were the visual effects—the Oscar-winning visual effects, lest we forget—so dated and strange looking as to appear comically out of place alongside the peerless art direction (which deserves every accolade it has received)? Why was the idea allowed to be corrupted by such a vapid script, to the point where much of it was insultingly banal even when viewed as material aimed at children? How is it possible that so many terrific actors coming together produces such a wooden and unconvincing set of performances, especially from dear Chloe Moretz, whose usual acting talent bears no resemblance to the strangely awkward portrayal of Isabelle in this film?
I have been hard on the script, so in the interest of fairness I will cite a glaring example of the issue to demonstrate what I’m talking about. Mid-way through the film, the children discover a book on the history of film, and in many ways that is where everything really starts to rocket downhill. Suddenly, we go from a charming film with an air of mystery and steampunk intrigue to a horribly on-the-nose documentary-style montage of why film is great and why, specifically, the old filmmaking techniques should be celebrated. Setting aside the heavy-handed approach of using a montage for that, surely someone on the team could have found a way to write it so that it didn’t feel so much like an infomercial.
Now if you’re anything like me, somewhere around this point you’ll pause and think “waaaaait a minute, this is all starting to sound rather familiar.” Suddenly, you realize why the film is disappointing, why it fails to meet its potential, why it descends so abruptly from the passable standard set in the first half: it’s because somewhere along the line, the film stopped being about the kids and their adventure—it became about an old filmmaker who was struggling to stay relevant and be appreciated in a world that’s left him behind. Sound like anyone we know?
Once your mind puts two and two together, it’s no longer surprising that Hugo turned sour. After all, what else would you expect to happen when you turn a colourful, imaginative film into a sappy, self-indulgent autobiographical plea for attention? At least Ben Kingsley is charismatic.
Hugo is a wasted opportunity, but the bigger picture is what’s troubling. The problems plaguing Hugo are representative of the mentality that’s pushing Hollywood further down the current slope into banal irrelevance. The engine of innovation and creative celebration that once was seems to have become a tired, complacent giant, snoring and drooling, dreaming of how great it used to be without realizing that it is asleep, that the world has moved on, and that the audience’s patience for self-congratulatory nostalgia is wearing ever thinner.
The Oscars, ostensibly a formal observance of the finest in the industry, is evidence enough. Hugo was nominated for no fewer than 11 categories, and won five of them—tied with The Artist, a silent film in black and white. Noticing a trend anywhere?
In the visual effects category, Hugo’s cheesy renderings won over Harry Potter’s gigantic palette of extraordinary visual wizardry (the only category in which that film received any notice), and nowhere was Andy Serkis’ brilliant virtual portrayal of Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes given its due. Instead, the Oscars focused their attention on celebrating the past, on glorifying the old ways, and on completely missing yet another opportunity to bring some life and contemporary energy to a dying star.
How much longer Hollywood expects to sustain this system seems like the wrong question to be asking, since their smug fingers plugged firmly in deaf ears betray a lack of awareness that there’s even a problem to begin with. I watch the Oscars every year, searching and hoping for a glimmer of innovation. In the meantime, I support indie filmmakers who are in tune with the world, who are adapting to it, who are pushing the medium forward.
Had I the power to do so, I would humbly submit that the factory-film industry should take a year off. Collect the millions upon millions of dollars that would be spent on the next Transformers, the next superhero film, and distribute the money among the most promising of the new generation of filmmakers. Give them an opportunity to truly explore the boundaries of their ability. Reward their willingness and ambition to usher in a new era for film, and see what happens.
Until that happens, I will continue to offer my support to those whose vision of film is fresh and whose energies are focused on telling new stories rather than wrapping old presents in new paper and delivering them anew like the world’s most pitiful Santa.