David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s documentary “The
Immortalists” concerns the scientific effort to defeat the aging process, yet
because it focuses so closely on the personalities of two scientists in
particular, it is bound to be greeted differently by different viewers: those
hoping for a cohesive, current overview of the campaign to extend human life
(the subject of a recent cover story in The Atlantic) may be disappointed,
while anyone looking for an entertaining double portrait of egghead
eccentricity will find their interest fully rewarded.
Those two main subjects are a well-matched pair. Aubrey de
Grey, a hirsute, donnish Englishman, sports a luxuriant russet beard that makes
him look like a refugee from the Pre-Raphaelites or a Russian monastery. Bill
Andrews by contrast is quintessentially American in his salt-and-pepper
ruggedness and unquenchable optimism. Both men are tall and fit with a buoyant
athleticism that somehow seems tied to their quest of limitless life: When we
first see de Grey, he’s poling a boat through the streams of Cambridge, where
he lives; for his part, Andrews is an avid-unto-obsessive marathoner, running
at least one hundred-mile race per month.
The film follows the men over several years, so we get to
see how their work is reflected in their evolving lives. At first, they are on
different continents and express contrasting ideas about their own motivations.
De Grey says his research is purely for the benefit of humanity, although quick
success would obviously help his mother–who says she’s 71 until he corrects
her by saying that she’s in fact 81. Andrews, on other hand, admits that he’d
like to win his battles in time to help to help his father, who’s 84 but still
shares his son’s love of running.
The two scientists don’t cross paths till late in the
narrative, when de Grey relocates to Silicon Valley, but the film makes clear
from the first that they are very similar in bringing an almost religious
fervor and conviction to their campaign to defeat aging. They both think it’s
possible to extend human life indefinitely and they’re determined to make the
necessary scientific advances themselves.
At the same time, their ideas about what the essential
problems are and how to combat them are entirely at odds with each other. The
film describes their different views in ways that the non-scientific-minded may
or may not find comprehensible. The more general point, though, is that there’s
no scientific consensus on these matters at present, so enterprising
researchers like these two are operating as solo adventurers.
Fittingly, each has a complex romantic life to match his
professional eccentricity. Andrews confesses that as a young man he broke off
several engagements fearing that marriage would interfere with his work. Now in
his 50s and never married, he’s engaged to Molly, a chipper blonde who shares
his love of marathon running. After he completes a near-suicidal run in the Himalayas
that nearly killed him two years earlier, they marry in a mountaintop Buddhist
When we first see de Grey, he’s been married for many years
to Adelaide, a Cambridge geneticist nearly two decades his senior. The two seem
ideally matched both intellectually and romantically; the film even shows them
sharing nude massages in a field. Yet when he decides to move to the U.S. and
she’s professionally unable leave Cambridge, a rupture occurs. Later, she says
that while she still loves him, she knows he has two younger girlfriends in
California, where he muses that extending human life may make “polyamorous”
relationships more necessary.
Such personal details account for much of the fascination of
“The Immortalists.” Yet the film could use some more incisive examination of
its subjects’ ideas. Most scientists working in their field simply foresee
extending the human lifespan by a few or several years. De Grey and Andrews are
outliers in asserting that there need be no limit to how long a person might live,
given the discovery of ways to halt or reverse the aging mechanism.
But what would it mean for human society if people could
live for a thousand years…or forever? De Grey and Andrews must have thought of
such questions, and indeed must have been asked about them a thousand times.
The film ultimately achieves a kind of poignancy in suggesting, after some of
their intimates have died, that these men are valiantly fighting an enemy they
can’t conquer. Yet its account of their quest would have been richer and more
illuminating if it delved more into the social, ethical and philosophical
ramifications of their work.
It is nonetheless a very well-mounted film, with outstanding
contributions in Alvarado’s cinematography and Eric Andrew Kuhn’s subtly