Already nominated for major awards and an Oscar favourite, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that has been pulling in the viewers. And it's no surprise. There's an all-star cast, a great idea, a heart-breaking love story and incredible special effects. It's message is engaging but - as I've hinted in the title to this post - one I have found increasingly unsatisfactory as I've thought more about this film since I saw it.
Benjamin Button is about a man who is born in his eighties and who, over time, grows younger. It is based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins in New Orleans at the end of World War I in 1918 and ends in the 21st century. Benjamin's life is characterised in the movie by the people he meets, the places he discovers, the loves he experiences, the many joys of life he knows, and the sadness of losing people he loved.
Cinema-goers have been somewhat polarised by the film. For some, the film is magical and wonderful. For others, it is dull and dreary. For my wife, Linda, it was the latter. Certainly, the film dragged in places and the action took a while to develop. And whilst the special effects and the make-up are brilliant - it's so strange seeing Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as pensioners - this didn't really capture my attention for the nearly three hour duration of the film.
The most interesting aspect of the film was it's lament - death is lamented, broken relationships are lamented, happy times that have to finish are lamented and bodies that break and become diseased are lamented. Benjamin's increasingly younger body simply reminds Daisy of her increasingly ageing body, heading as it is toward death. And so the movie is characterised from start to finish by recognising the sheer fragility of human life. Indeed, a collection of quotes from the film can be found here, which reflects this point.
Life is presented as 'a series of intersecting lives and incidents, out of anyone's control'. A fate greater than ourselves seems to decide whether we live or die (as shown comedically by the Mr Daws, who's apparently been struck by lightning seven times - who survived, but who has to live with bodily effects of what happened), making life a person's greatest gift. Wallowing in resentment for what has ceased or gone wrong is, according to the film, a waste of time. And so the heroic characters in the film are those who make the best of their lives and experience what they can, despite the unfortunate circumstances that they might have faced - whether that's swimming the English Channel later in life, or dancing. As Benjamin puts it,
'For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.'And so the film causes the viewer to ask questions in the light of these sad truths: Am I using my time wisely? Are I letting life happen to me, or am I happening to life?
As a Christian, I found a film about what it's like to be continually surrounded by the reality of death both engaging and sad. Engaging, because Hollywood rarely takes on such a subject in a subtle and real way. But I also found it sad - because of the lack of hope that was portrayed. As grateful as the central characters appear for the gift of life they have received, the reality of death punctures it continually. And at most, an elderly Daisy mentions being curious about what happens 'next' after her final breath. This apparent lack of belief in a personal God - or a meaningful afterlife - inevitably leads to sadness. Benjamin and Daisy live to fully experience their lives, but it's as if they are always watching the clock, always aware that 'nothing ever lasts'. I found myself leaving the cinema very grateful for the hope that 2 Corinthians 5 offers me through Christ - a hope of a new body and a life beyond death in the renewed creation: a life of solid joys and lasting pleasures. I can't help but think that this is what the film's writers crave.
Ultimately, I found Benjamin Button's message frustrating. Frustrating because it's sometimes not enough to be told to just be grateful for life and to experience it as best we can. The film hits the nail on the head as it pictures the tyranny of time, a life inevitably heading toward death and the destruction and hardship of a broken world and broken bodies. But we long for more than this - deep down we know that God has set eternity in our hearts and we long for more.