BFI London Film Festival 2014: The Immortalists

by Maryann O'Connor on 16/10/2014

Photo by Myleen Hollero

The Immortalists is a documentary about two scientists determined to reverse the aging process. So far, so uncontroversial. But their research goes beyond the latest skin brightener, curing Alzheimers or strengthening aging limbs – they seek to reverse aging in its entirety at the cellular level, potentially making us immortal.

The two scientists couldn’t be more different; Bill Andrews (US) and Aubrey de Grey (UK) come at the anti-aging crusade from opposing sides and from opposing life philosophies. Bill appears to be driven by the need to stop the people around him dying (especially his dad, who has Alzheimers), spending his days feverishly researching, running and living cleanly. Aubrey seems most obsessed with his own death and spends a lot of time drinking beer while pontificating and punting on the river in Cambridge.

Neither scientist feels the need to address the ethical implications of what that want to achieve, although during a debate at Oxford University Aubrey does fleetingly touch on the reasons that ‘others’  might not like the idea. The dissenting role is left to two other bit-part scientists, Leonard Hayflick and Colin Blakemore. The documentary is all at once diverting, depressing and faintly ridiculous. You get the sense that directors/writer David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg are poking fun at both its subjects, or perhaps that is just a by-product of the polarising and eccentric attitudes both men embody. The graphics showing us the inner workings of our cells are in the style of cute scrawls on a blackboard, the simplifications of the huge task these men want to achieve, but what the film really focuses on is the personalities of those who are trapped in a ‘let’s live forever’ bubble. I suppose that is not unsurprising, given the specific title of the film.

This subject cannot be looked into without asking the question: what would success in their goals look like? This is not asked. The men are so enmeshed in the dream of their future without the pain of aging that they don’t seem to consider, even in some small part, that much of the pain in the world is caused by poverty-related ailments which persist even in the overdeveloped world that they seek to ‘cure’ of old age. People living in poverty would still die at an earlier age even if there were to be a miracle anti-aging drug; those with money would monopolise that potential benefit of science as they monopolise most other benefits of science.

Maryann has awarded The Immortalists two Torches of Truth


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