Hugo Should Have Been Nominated for “Worst Use of 3-D”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 24 2012 2:39 PM

The Ham-Handed 3-D Effects That Ruin Hugo

Martin Scorsese in a still from Hugo.

Oscar-voters were filled with wide-eyed wonder at Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, nominating the film for 11 Academy Awards this morning, the most for any film. Notably, Hugo is the third 3-D film ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and, like Avatar two years ago, it has a shot at winning for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects, too. The Academy was dazzled!

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

I don’t get it. Some films in 2011 made brilliant use of 3-D—Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina come to mind—and many did a fine job, adding stereo effects that enhanced the action without getting in the way. For me, the 3-D in Hugo was the opposite.


There are, first of all, several distracting moments where Scorsese “breaks the stereo window,” by having an object pop out off the screen toward the audience. While a few 3-D cinematographers have argued that this ought to be avoided at all costs—that everything should extend backwards, away from the audience (as if the action were unfolding through a window)—most deploy the pop-out effect as an occasional gimmick, to remind the audience that they’ve paid for a premium ticket. Think of the paddle-ball sequence from 1953’s House of Wax:

In Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock chose to break the stereo window only twice: First, when Grace Kelly reaches out of the screen as if to ask the audience for help when she’s being strangled; and later on, when a key piece of evidence is finally revealed. Hugo’s pop-out effects have no such logic: They appear to serve no purpose at all. The one that sticks in my mind is when Scorsese has the train inspector’s dog poke its snout into the theater—a nosy, eye-crossing special effect that induces more annoyance than pleasure.

There are a few lovely visual effects in the movie—the chase up the clock tower, for example—but, for the most part, the 3-D felt brutish and clumsy, as if Scorsese were trying to beat child-like glee into me with a metal rod. Consider the end-credits sequence, delivered in an old-fashioned-looking parade of title cards. The text appears above and below a horizontal squiggle, with stars in the corners. Simple enough, but Scorsese layers a 3-D effect over the frame, such that the stars are out inexplicably in front of the credits, while the squiggle hides behind them. Why set up this confusing visual space? Oh right, it’s… the… magic… of… cinema.

Beyond the special effects, Scorsese’s film dispenses with internal logic for the sake of would-be enchantment and film-nerdery. The image shown in the movie’s poster, for example—of Hugo clutching the hand of a giant clock—is a contrived reference to a Harold Lloyd bit. But the action doesn’t make a bit of sense in context. Hugo is hiding from the train inspector and hanging on for dear life, though the ledge is just a few inches below his feet, and he could just as well have hidden there instead. Then there’s the scene in Hugo where a screening of the Lumières brothers’ seminal L’arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat causes panic in the theater, as audience-members duck out of the way of what they think is an oncoming train. It refers to a famous moment in film history that may never have occurred.

The movie is so in love with its source material, and so devoted to spectacle as an end in itself, that it loses all sense of what might motivate a nifty visual in the first place. It’s not surprising, then, to see that the Georges Méliès movies that inspired Hugo—and which take up a significant portion of its run-time—fell victim to the same hubris of special effects more than 100 years ago. Go ahead and watch one. Disappearing chairs and magic pixie dust were innovative in 1905, but they’re tiresome today. The same could be said for the 3-D in Hugo: Its cornball effects are stuck in the past.

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