For­ever Is Now

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

The Im­mor­tal­ists, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cin­ema, 4 chiles The dream of im­mor­tal­ity out­lives ev­ery­one who de­sires it, sug­gests Al­dous Hux­ley’s 1939 novel, After Many a Sum­mer Dies the Swan. Its ti­tle is taken from Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson’s ode to mor­tal­ity “Tithonus” (“Man comes and tills the field and lies be­neath/And after many a sum­mer dies the swan”). In the novel, a rich Hol­ly­wood mogul, sur­rounded by a lively group of ac­quain­tances, pur­sues the se­cret of longevity. Set in per­pet­u­ally youth­ful Los An­ge­les, Hux­ley plays up the nar­cis­sism in this de­sire and the eth­i­cal ques­tions that would come with liv­ing for­ever. What are the con­se­quences of liv­ing for cen­turies, and what toll would the re­quired treat­ments ex­act? In Hux­ley’s case, the test sub­ject from the 15th cen­tury has ex­pe­ri­enced a kind of re­verse-evo­lu­tion side ef­fect, his be­hav­ior be­com­ing more an­i­mal-like as the end­less years go by. In David Al­varado and Ja­son Suss­berg’s thought­pro­vok­ing doc­u­men­tary about two re­searchers com­mit­ted to achiev­ing longevity, the price comes in the form of side ef­fects, like those listed on a pre­scrip­tion box. One the­ory is par­tic­u­larly plau­si­ble. It’s so be­liev­able that it gives The Im­mor­tal­ist a shim­mer of hope. But there’s a catch. If it doesn’t make you younger, it will give you can­cer.

The Im­mor­tal­ists ex­plores the re­search and per­son­al­i­ties of Bill An­drews and Aubrey de Grey, both of whom be­lieve they are on the brink of not just slow­ing ag­ing but rev­ers­ing it. The film be­gins in­no­cently enough, in­tro­duc­ing the men, one a marathon-run­ning re­searcher, the other an ec­cen­tric Ph.D. with a sweep­ing beard. The bi­ol­ogy be­hind their be­liefs, shown with the aid of an­i­ma­tion, seems achiev­able. The men’s life­styles and cir­cum­stances ex­plain their mo­ti­va­tion. Fam­ily mem­bers fig­ure in. An­drews’ eighty-four-year-old fa­ther, who urged his son as a grade-school stu­dent to be a doc­tor and cure ag­ing, shows how se­lec­tive de­cline can be. He’s able to shuf­fle grace­fully along­side his jog­ging son, yet shows signs of mem­ory loss. “Life is so funny,” says the older An­drews. “You learn and learn and learn — and just about the time you learned what you wanted to learn, you die.” He tells the cam­era that he’s proud of his dad for be­com­ing a sci­en­tist and proud of his dad for tak­ing on ag­ing. Of course, he means his son. De Grey, first seen punt­ing down an English river, says that there’s noth­ing per­sonal in his pas­sion to stop ag­ing, that it’s not about his wife or mother or him­self. “I’ve al­ways thought about it in purely hu­man­i­tar­ian terms,” he claims. We meet his eighty-one-year-old mother, who tells us she’s sev­enty-one and a half be­fore be­ing cor­rected.

Some­where along the way, The Im­mor­tal­ists be­comes less a doc­u­men­tary on cut­ting- edge sci­ence and more a character study. An­drews twice at­tempts a 138-mile race through the Hi­malayas, a feat seem­ingly as im­pos­si­ble as con­quer­ing death. An­drews’ fi­ancée ex­plains that if his re­search suc­ceeds, their mar­riage will be for­ever. De Grey, a self-de­scribed “poster child” for fu­ture life­styles, can see a need for var­i­ous sex­ual part­ners over the course of a thou­sand years. Sel­dom with­out a drink in his hand, he punc­tu­ates a par­tic­u­larly the­o­ret­i­cal rev­e­la­tion into the cam­era with a long swig from a beer bot­tle. Drink­ing or not, de Grey is adept at ex­plain­ing cel­lu­lar dam­age and what it might take to re­pair it. A col­league marvels at how much al­co­hol the man can hold and still have “co­her­ent sci­en­tific thoughts.” Still, we can’t help won­der­ing if his liver is ag­ing faster than the rest of him. We see him and his older wife walk to a weedy spot within sight of the road­way, strip off their clothes, and have an amorous pic­nic. De Grey doesn’t care about how he’s viewed or if his ec­cen­tric­i­ties give cre­dence to the charges of black magic and pseu­do­science other sci­en­tists throw at him. “It some­times es­capes the gen­eral pub­lic that sci­en­tists are ac­tu­ally hu­man be­ings who en­joy hav­ing a good time,” he says.

As it ex­plores im­mor­tal­ity, The Im­mor­tal­ists stuffs us with re­minders of en­tropy — in faces, in homes, and in na­ture. Some of th­ese re­minders are as in­no­cent as de Grey’s wife, also a re­searcher, who leans into her com­puter screen and squints to make out what’s there. Randy, An­drews’ boy­hood chum and now his business part­ner in the biotech firm Sierra Sciences, is in a race with death, giv­ing mean­ing to his company’s slo­gan, “Cure ag­ing or die try­ing.” Con­trast­ing pho­tos of An­drews and de Grey when young (and es­pe­cially those of de Grey’s wife) sug­gest that the clock marches on even as they try to stop it. And what if they do? What hap­pens when ag­ing is re­versed and the dif­fer­ence in chrono­log­i­cal ages, even mea­sured in cen­turies, no longer mat­ters? Is it OK to date some­one 300 years younger than you?

The Im­mor­tal­ists is many-lay­ered and full of visual im­agery: a hope­lessly clut­tered home, two lovers on a bridge be­neath where de Grey is punt­ing. In ad­di­tion to the sci­ence and the per­son­al­i­ties, there’s a cap­i­tal­is­tic side to the cru­sade. Keep­ing the re­search funded seems as dif­fi­cult as con­quer­ing death. And, of course, there are doubters in the sci­ence com­mu­nity. Given their say, the doubters re­place fond hopes with a re­luc­tant skep­ti­cism. The doubters also bring up the prac­ti­cal and so­cial ques­tions that An­drews seems to ig­nore in the film and that de Grey men­tions only in pass­ing. Will the break­throughs, if ever re­al­ized, be avail­able to ev­ery­one? What will so­ci­ety do to ac­com­mo­date the long-lived? And what about those who want their lives to end? The doubters also ques­tion the va­lid­ity of the re­search. Is pur­su­ing im­mor­tal­ity rea­son­able? In Hux­ley’s book, one of its char­ac­ters asks a friend if he will con­tinue seek­ing a cure for death. “Only so long as I felt fairly cer­tain that what I was do­ing wouldn’t cause more harm than good,” he an­swers.

— Bill Kohlhaase

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