Forever Is Now
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