Despite aging backwards, Benjamin Button is not an unusual character. He leads a surprisingly ordinary life, meeting ordinary people, and doing ordinary things. What makes him special is how he is able to cope with constant loss, rejection, and some mild discrimination.
He lives a full life, one filled with all of the mysteries and joys life can bring. He drinks, visits a brothel, has a child, works on a boat, fights in WWII, and then closes his eyes as an infant as he breathes his final breaths.
David Fincher directs Button’s tale with incredible care, using brilliant lighting and stunning angles to capture the story. It helps the audience become drawn to the character, not because of his unusual disease, but because he is so lively. Even when the world around him is dark, depressing, and rejecting, he never shows any sign of falling apart.
Benjamin Button is not manipulative. The story is book-ended with the final hours of Button’s would-be wife, lying in a hospital bed as Hurricane Katrina approaches New Orleans. Cut-aways serve as transitions, moving around in Button’s life as he gets older, while revealing the story to the audience and another character in the room.
Brad Pitt stars, although the special effects take over in the early part of his life. They’re special and Oscar worthy because you don’t know they exist. These are seamless transitions, using a wide array of incredible techniques to make Benjamin stand out, while keeping it plausible.
Small characters, from the old man who recounts the story of how he was hit by lightning (“seven times!”), the captain of the old tugboat Button works on, his surrogate mother, or his real father, give advice and spread wisdom. Their dialogue and attitudes, not to mention the laughs they provide, are heartwarming.
If Benjamin Button does anything wrong, it ducks away from the difficult final years, choosing to spend an extended amount of its near three hour runtime with Brad Pitt minus any aging effects. He develops dementia as he slowly turns into a child, and few scenes address how difficult this would have been for all involved. The film drags slightly with mildly repetitious sequences with Cate Blanchett as they move into their first home.
If there’s a reason, it is likely to keep Button’s positive attitudes and experiences as the focal point instead of leaving the audience depressed at what he had become. His actions as death takes hold are not his fault, out of his control in fact, and it is not necessarily fair to take the character in that direction.
Benjamin Button leads an extraordinary life. It has nothing to do with his condition, but how he conducts himself towards others, never letting the condition become a factor in his daily life. He doesn’t feel special or different; he accepts it and lives his life. No wonder everyone around him seems happier for having known him.
Shot mostly on digital, Benjamin Button is a spectacularly beautiful Blu-ray presentation. Detail is nothing short of remarkable, and sharpness makes for top-tier material. Black levels are superb, and shadow delineation is wonderful. Contrast is bright without blooming.
Flesh tones are spot on, and in tune with the variety of color timing choices. Noise and compression artifacts are non-existent. The source is of course pristine. The faded, scratchy look of footage meant to replicate aged film isn’t jarring, but adds to the style.
Benjamin Button follows the title character through a diverse number of scenarios. His birth is highlighted by a celebration, filled with exploding fireworks and large crowds on the streets. His brief stint in the war leads to the film’s most exciting audio sequence as the tugboat is attacked. Bullets fly through the sound field, and an explosion rocks the subwoofer.
Parties and a loud bar sequence kick up the ambiance wonderfully. Modern scenes in the hospital deliver the outside hurricane wonderfully, including a loud clap of thunder that delivers quite the scare if you’re not ready for it.
Spread across two discs, the film comes to Blu-ray from Criterion. The first disc contains a commentary from David Fincher, who talks candidly about all aspects of the film. The second disc contains a massive three hour-plus documentary The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button. It is split into multiple sections, and can thankfully be digested in parts. Still, this is an exhaustive piece worth the time put into it. Some trailers and still galleries remain, but that’s plenty of material.