Jokes are all fine and fell, but the men profiled in the film The Immortalists are deadly serious (pardon the pun) about the idea of not just extending human life, but reversing aging itself. It sounds like science fiction, believing that the Fountain of Youth is a daily pill that’s 10-15 years away from being in our medicine cabinets, but if sheer passion in excess was the only thing needed for massive paradigm changes in science, the two researchers profiled in this documentary would have already succeeded by now.
On the one hand, there’s Aubrey de Gong, “the Crusader.” He’s an English biogerontologist, which from what I gather, means he studies the effects of aging. To put it simply, Aubrey’s research says that cells collect “garbage” over time that reduce their efficiency and cause aging, and just as you wouldn’t let garbage pile up in your house because its unhealthy, we should treat our cells the same way with a solution he calls SENS. A tall, thin man with longing greying hair and a shaggy bird, Aubrey has the quality of someone who looks like they’ll probably outlive us all, despite the outcome of his research.
Although his research goes along the same lines, American researcher Bill “The Marathon Man” Andrews is the opposite of Aubrey in that he’s what you’d call a “health nut.” He’s also an avid marathon runner, hence the “Marathon Man” nickname. Bill’s research concerns the telomere on chromosomes, what he calls the tips to the shoelaces. The telomeres divide as we age, so essentially our cells know how old they are, and Bill is working to fine a way to promote regeneration to the telomere to de-age us.
Aubrey and Bill are essentially the odd couple of the immortal sciences, and that’s a lot of fun to play off of considering that the film’s got some really heady techno-babble in it. Of course, I’m no scientist, but I have been watching a lot of Cosmos on Fox, and to my novice ears, it certainly sounds like the duo are on to something, scientifically speaking. There are doubters, and some people interviewed point out that there’s always been “snake oil salesmen” who said that they’ve got the cure what ails you, but it’s unfair to say that Aubrey and Bill are selling snake oil. Thankfully, the film finds ways to introduce a healthy sense of scepticism.
Where The Immortalists loses me is when someone brings up the coming “nanotech revolution.” Anyone who’s seen the recent Johnny Depp film Transcendence may roll their eyes at the mention of the magical effect of nanites, and while I expect a scientist to know more about science than Hollywood producers and screenwriters, you start to see where the idea of a miracle drug that cures aging starts to wane.
For me, personally, one of the things I found lacking in the film was not an answer to whether or not we can, but rather, whether or not we should. With the crème de la crème of healthcare already being the prevue of the wealthy, is it not possible that the miracle cure to aging would mean a society where the poor get old and frail while the rich stay forever young and vital? At one point in the film, Aubrey debates with a colleague, Colin Blakemore, about the merits of immortality. Blakemore is obviously against it, a symbol of what Aubrey calls the old guard, but the audience, many of whom were young students, seems to go with mortality at the end of their debate.
Obviously, The Immortalists doesn’t settle the question of whether or not we can all be immortal in our lifetime. For the purposes of this documentary, though, I don’t think it matters. The topic provides enough interesting insights into science itself to keep things engaging. Most notable is the notion that there are legitimate and accomplished scientists chasing fantasy in an effort to create reality and make actual progress in explaining something like how we can be immortal. Yes, science is now working around the edges of the impossible, and that in itself is very exciting.
The other thing that works quite well here is that Aubrey and Bill are wonderful, and wonderfully different, characters to follow around in the pursuit of the impossible. The Immortalists is so named because it’s about the dreamers, and not necessarily about the dream. We may never get to immortality, but scientists like Aubrey and Bill are pushing the boundaries and testing our very notions about nature. And sometimes in science, and in filmmaking, that’s more important than the accomplishment itself.
Though it may not answer all of the tough questions, The Immortalists is still an engaging documentary with two subjects who are a lot of fun to follow around.