Fincher does everything right.
When I first heard the premise for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I was skeptical. I'm not a fan of sci-fi or any kind of film that takes you away from reality, so I wasn't sure how I would feel about the leap of faith it would take to watch a man age backwards. Having now seen the film, I can tell you, it brings us viscerally close to the human experience in a way that few stories ever have.
The reason it works is that it gives us a new angle, an alternate perspective, on the transient nature of our lives. Because this character is forced to watch people exit his life as he becomes younger, he realizes the precious and fleeting nature of his relationships. As Director David Fincher points out, the film focuses not on "the loneliness of that, but the galvanizing effect of that." The temporality encourages us to make the most of the moments we have, drinking them in gratefully while they are still in our grasp.
"When you see someone who's fifty years old, you don't realize how much time they have left," Fincher says. "But when you see someone who's aging in reverse and they're eleven, there's a certain kind of poignance to that." Time becomes consciously finite. As Benjamin [Brad Pitt] sees his years flake off one by one, and as his heart's counterpart, Daisy [Cate Blanchett], sees her youth turn to wrinkles, the two have full acknowledgement of the narrow window they have together, their timelines racing by in opposite directions.
The plot does not, however, tether dependently around a love story. As Fincher puts it, for these characters, "their time together is defined by their time apart." And Pitt is proud to point out that the movie doesn't "devolve into sentimentality." As any life does, Benjamin's meanders in unexpected directions, chases after new fascinations, and struggles always to return to a sense of home. The characters are struck by a renewable sense of awe with each other, precisely because they see such changes in one another every time their orbits realign.
Brad Pitt is fantastic as always. Cate Blanchett as well. And backdropped by the often mystifying setting of New Orleans, the cinematographers weave a colorful sense of magic through the dance these characters share. Perhaps most impressive is the feat accomplished by the makeup and CG experts, allowing the audience to take the ride without being distracted by the requisite leap of faith. Pitt had to sit in makeup for five hours every morning, and Fincher was in post production for two years, but it was worth it.
The technical process involved is beyond my explanation, but Fincher attempted to shed some light on it when discussing Benjamin's eyes as an old man. "They're CG but they are mapped from [Pitt's] eyes. They are a mathematical interpretation of what his eyes would be like at 85." That may sound confusing, but think of it like this. Instead of using computers as the engine, they designed a way that the actor could steer the performance and the technology could follow. Perhaps that's why this masterpiece is able to play your heart strings with such fluidity.
See it on the big screen if you get the chance. This is one of those rare trips that takes you soaring through a fantasy and delivers you right back in the world you live in.