Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winner of three, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button didn't exactly resonate with me strongly the first time I saw it. I certainly couldn't question that it's an elegantly crafted film from director David Fincher, who has a knack for assembling rich tapestries of story, and that the visual effects are exceptional. But there was something about the golden-hued themes of love and loss that felt too familiar for it to make the kind of bustling impact that the eventual Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, had. Five months and another viewing later, my admiration has grown a lot for the film, and I fully expect it to achieve classic status in the future.
Eric Roth’s screenplay is an excellent further exposition of a (quite) short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a piece that I loved the first time I read it, but did not exactly seem like the ideal candidate for a film adaptation. Grounding the film in the present of Hurricane Katrina-era New Orleans, Roth does wonders with the framework of a man who is born old and grows young, living through a number of historical events along the way.
The way the film references cultural touchstones like NASA missions and The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show does recall Roth’s previous film Forrest Gump, and the comparison feels a bit inevitable, but Benjamin Button’s focus is more personal and more precise. Rather than bringing up these events for comical or dramatic effect, they are simply included to amplify the story of a man passing through time in the opposite way of everyone else, but affected in many of the same ways as everyone else. Benjamin must learn to accept the realities of love and loss like anyone else – the circumstances surrounding it may be different, but the outcome is utterly familiar.
As Benjamin, Brad Pitt adds another nuanced and interesting performance to his résumé, and as his love Daisy, Cate Blanchett continues to establish herself as an actress always in command. Fincher achieves a similar densely layered feel like he did with Zodiac, taking a massive story, and giving us striking images that almost always take the story exactly where it needs to go. There are a few points where Benjamin Button feels like it might just be dragging on a bit too long, but it’s hard to say what you could really cut out of this film. And most impressive are the visual effects, which are astounding and probably represent the most effective use of technology to advance – not substitute for – the story in a film.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like a film that will only grow in esteem as the years pass, and a film that will certainly reward viewers if they allow additional viewings. It exists as both a fantasy painted with romantic views on life, love, and death, and a film that has much to say about the very real passing of time in each of our lives.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. This is by far one of the best visual transfers I’ve ever seen, with this mostly digitally shot film being converted directly from the source without any transfer to film. Many high def transfers have certain colors or images that really pop or stand out; this one has that effect for nearly everything on screen. Skin tones are extremely lifelike, blacks are impossibly opaque and the golden-tinted color palette of the film looks absolutely gorgeous. The wide variety of locations provides for a broad range of color, and it all looks fantastic. Picture clarity and sharpness is seemingly flawless throughout.
The audio is presented in Dolby DTS-HD, and is a dynamic mix full of near-constant ambient sound and crystal clear dialogue from the front channel. There is ample opportunity for the subwoofer as well, with a number of battle scenes. Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score is mixed in nicely.
This 2-Disc Criterion Collection Blu-ray is included with an abundance of special features, and the quality is what you would expect from a Criterion release. Disc one contains the film along with an extremely dense commentary track from Fincher. He rarely pauses for more than several seconds in between thoughts, which come at a stream-of-consciousness rate as every scene seems to remind him of ten things all at once, including casting, locations, effects and shooting.
The second disc contains the rest of the features, which are grouped into four categories – first trimester, second trimester, third trimester, and birth, roughly correlating with the stage of the film’s production. Interviews with Pitt, Blanchett, Fincher, and a number of other crew members are included, as well as featurettes looking at the film’s storyboards, costumes, art direction, and score. For me, by far the most interesting were the collection of pieces about the visual effects, including the motion-capture process and techniques used to “de-age” the actors for scenes where they played younger versions of themselves. Also included are trailers, promotional stills and production photos.
The Bottom Line
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems to be a film any serious film library should contain – you’ll want to continue to view it as the years pass. With a stunning visual transfer and the quality that the Criterion Collection name implies, this is a fantastic release across the board.