Is death a necessary part of life? Is there an afterlife? A god? A soul? How would the human mind respond to immortality? Would an eternal lifespan fundamentally alter human social relations? Is life worth living at all?
These are — strangely, considering it is a film about the possibility of living forever — questions The Immortalists never asks. Or, when it briefly considers a few of them, it offers only the most cursory of answers: death is bad, so ending it must be good. Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, the two primary subjects of The Immortalists, are singularly focused on the scientific possibilities of living forever, but one gets the sense that they have not even begun to grapple with the moral, ethical, philosophical, theological, or even practical consequences of infinitely long life. If they have, the film offers no evidence of it.
Instead, first-time directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg present Andrews and de Grey as committed medical scientists researching the greatest epidemic of all time: aging. They are literally on a quest for immortality, searching for a scientific cure for death. As portrayed in the film, Andrews and de Grey comes off as reasonable men, maybe slightly mad, but only in the way that all brilliant men are slightly mad. Early in the film, Andrews says, “The day I become a million years old, I know that I’m going to say, ‘Today is not the day I want to die.’” He speaks with absolute calm, not a trace of irony. Whatever we think of the science behind anti-aging, it is impossible to doubt Andrews’ conviction.
While de Grey shares that same conviction, they are outwardly polar opposites. Andrews is a clean-cut molecular biologist, fond of running extreme marathons, including a 100-mile race in the Himalayas that nearly kills him, twice. De Grey is his polar opposite, a hippie-ish engineer, fond of nudism, polyamory, punting, and beer, who sports a truly awe-inspiring beard. Andrews and de Grey may share a vision of eternal life, but they are counterposed on how to achieve it. The film delves into their competing scientific theories, but, despite a valiant effort to animate their differences, the nitty-gritty of their research largely remains an abstraction.
The Immortalists is by no means a bad movie, but it is an oddly limited one. Alvarado and Sussberg have landed on a subject brimming with philosophical possibilities. But they offer something smaller, something we’ve seen a lot of in the documentary boom of the past few years: a portrait of two eccentric obsessives. The portrait is sensitive and resists judgment. The film is strongest at subtly hinting at its subject’s consanguineous psychological complexities — both men are fiercely competitive; they have unusual romantic relationships; both are dealing with aging parents. Additionally, Alvarado’s cinematography is often quite beautiful. Along with the Glassian score, it gives the film a meditative intensity similar to Errol Morris’s work. But whereas Morris prods his subjects to reveal their metaphysical essences, Avarado and Sussberg seem largely content to play along with Andrews and de Grey’s game. When de Grey participates in a Cambridge debate about the desirability of infinite lifespans, it could have been a turning point, allowing for a deeper discussion of the philosophy behind immortality. Instead, it just dead-ends into a spat over Malthusian demographics.
The Immortalists opens with a quotation from the Epic of Gilgamesh: “Who, then, will convene the gods that you may find immortality?” This line, coming as it does from one of the world’s oldest extant works of literature, reminds us that the quest for eternal life is an ancient human ambition. But watching The Immortalists, I couldn’t help but think of a different epigraph, this one from Albert Camus, who opens The Myth of Sisyphus with a line from Pindar’s Pythian 3, “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.”