The Georges Méliès Dilemma or Some Theological Reflections on Hugo

I recently watched the movie Hugo with my family and was pleasantly surprised by it’s uncanny combination of humor, wit, and drama (and even more surprised by several scenes which brought tears to my eyes).  Having grown up watching classic films, I was particularly fond of director Martin Scorsese’s magical reenactment of the production of the first silent movies.  All in all, it was an inspiring film filled with adventure, mystery, and good story telling.  What stuck with me the most, however, was the underlining philosophical message of the film.  Namely, its emphasis on the meaning of human life, and the utter futility of a life lived without purpose.

In the film, one of the characters, former silent film director Georges Méliès , lives in utter despair because he feels that his life is without purpose.  Once a groundbreaking silent film maker, Méliès now lives in obscurity and relative poverty, running an old toy shop in Paris’ central train station.  He has lost, or so he thinks, all of his life’s work and believes that his many great accomplishments were ultimately meaningless.  One scene which powerfully depicts the feeling of utter despair and pointlessness Méliès is wrestling with, shows all of his films, which he was forced to sell to a chemical company, being melted (thousands of hours of hard work and incredible amounts of imagination destroyed in a matter of seconds) and the remaining chemicals being used to make, of all things, high heels.  The image of such incredible art being destroyed and transformed into something so mundane left me with a profound sense of how utterly pointless human existence is without God.

Like Méliès’ beautiful and imaginative films, humans are finite bundles of matter whose ultimate fate is death and dissolution.  Upon our deaths our bodies will rot, totally dissolving, and all of the atoms which currently comprise us will eventually be scattered throughout the universe–perhaps a piece of you will end up in a pair of high heels like Méliès’ films.  One ancient philosopher, known as the Preacher, wrestled with such thoughts: “for the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.  They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

Indeed, all is vanity if there is no objective purpose to life.  There is no ultimate meaning to the endless motions and recombinations of atoms–to the endless strivings of human beings with their art and their science and their culture–if God does not exist.  However, the Bible teaches that the world does have an objective purpose; that human life is not futile; that we are, in fact, intrinsically valuable, being made in the very image and likeness of God, and endowed by our creator with a specific purpose (Gen. 1:26-31).  We are to have dominion over, to have power over and tend to, our Fathers creation, to do this by loving God with all of our being and loving each other in the same way that we love ourselves (Luke 10:27-28).  Sin is simply a degradation of this purpose which literally destroys our lives–human beings, intended to persist without death, to be free from pain and suffering and united with their Creator, find themselves corrupted and dying (like one of Hugo’s broken machines). 

As the Wisdom of Solomon states:  “for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wisdom 2:23-24).  The good news is, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provides us with hope that our finite being might ultimately participate in the infinite Being of our Creator.

You see, the only way out of the Méliès dilemma, the only true escape from despair, is Jesus–the logos who became flesh for us men, and for our salvation, to give us  new life and a purpose; to restore the brokenness, which is humanity, to the fullness of what it was intended to be. 

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2 thoughts on “The Georges Méliès Dilemma or Some Theological Reflections on Hugo

  1. I also felt there was another powerful spiritual message to the film. Most everyone in the film – Hugo, the granddaughter, the inspector, the flower girl, Monsieur Frick, Mama, had heart shaped holes within their mechanical existences – that needed to find their heart shaped keys. And as the movie progressed, we see people helping people to get past their hurts and to find a healthy place of being. We can all have brokenness within our lives, and God knows how to reach in and touch that broken area, and revive our hearts – and often he does use other people to do this.

    One of the few main characters that didn’t have a brokenness in his life was the book dealer. Is this a glimmer of God? He was instrumental in leading the children to the book that showed them who George really was – he gave them the knowledge they needed to keep on helping George. He gave Hugo a book (Robin Hood) – the life of robin hood reflected Hugo’s life, as he stole from those who had plenty to give to those who didn’t have enough – parts.

    Then there was the message of how we all have a purpose in God’s plan.

    God is good, all the time.

    Truly an above par film, way above par. Thanks for your good words.

    • You are absolutely right, the film is way above par and chalk full of theological allusions–I barely scratched the surface in my post. Thanks for the great comment Craig!

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