Of all the ailments that plague the human species, age is the most trusted, diligent and effective soldier in death’s army. When death’s other agents – cancer, war, human callousness and cruelty – fall short, age is called in to finish the job. And though he takes his time, there’s no arguing with his success rate. No matter how much you try to dodge or avoid or fend him off, age comes for us all.
But what if it … didn’t? That’s the obvious yet unanswerable essential question driving Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Gray, the two scientists at the center of "The Immortalists," the thoroughly compelling new doc currently showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Forget fountains of youth and holy grails; Andrews and de Gray are using genuine science, not mysticism or miracles, to tap into man’s potential for eternal life. Though their missions are the same, the two men and semi-rivals (a doctor’s visit can only be described as a health-off) share little else in common.
Straight-laced long distance marathon enthusiast Andrews thinks he’s found the key in telomerase, a substance that could potentially keep the little caps on the end of our chromosomes from deteriorating away – and therefore keep a human being from deteriorating away. The only, teeny tiny problem with his solution: Some believe it might cause cancer.
On the other hand, the sprawlingly bearded de Gray is one of those vehemently against Andrews’ solution. In fact, de Gray’s theory involves the complete opposite: cleaning up human cells entirely of telomerase, plus any other junk and damage that clogs it up.
While the two of them hunt for answers – and funding, namely in Andrews’ case –there are those against their mission to solve the great mystery of human aging. For instance, there’s Dr. Leonard Hayflick, who uncovered a massive breakthrough back in the earliest days of cellular aging research but sees the current research into eternal life and essentially stopping time as a fool’s errand (think of him as a kind of scientific version of 1972 Miami Dolphins). Plus, for him, death gives us a chance to celebrate life. Considering the cold funeral footage that follows that statement, though, it seems clear where the film stands.
The film’s leanings are made only clearer with the introduction of Dr. Colin Blakemore, a skeptic nicknamed on screen as "The Old Guard" (de Gray and Andrews get noble titles like "The Crusader" and "The Marathon Man"). Blakemore’s concerns, however, are valid, echoing the scientific and ethical concerns of a fellow – albeit fictional – doctor, Ian Malcolm. Are these scientists so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they’re not stopping to think if they should?
Coming in at a brisk, bite-sized 78 minutes, "The Immortalists" doesn’t particularly stop too long to ask itself those questions either. Still, even when given only the quickest nods, the ethical and philosophical conversations are fascinating. Can humanity survive its enhanced survival, a world of the hungry, thirsty neverdead? What will people do when their internal countdown strikes zero but then keeps going? Do scientific breakthroughs need to wait for the world to be ready for them?
These are big, complex ideas, surrounded by equally complex science, yet little in "The Immortalists" feels like a lecture or weighed down by import. It’s a sharp, swift, compulsively watchable doc that nicely brings the audience into the world of those who will, as their motto says, "live forever or die trying."
It helps that co-directors Dave Alvarado and Jason Sussberg have two subjects as complex and as interesting as the breakthroughs they’re trying to develop. Andrews and de Gray aren’t only great in relating their big concepts and biological theories – not a small feat – bringing the ideas down to a layman’s level with clarity and energy with the help of some nifty little graphics. Both men lead fascinating lives, inside and out of the lab.
Andrews is the film’s real pathos figure, a man driven to fight life’s limitations while witnessing them all around him – his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, his cancer-struck colleague and even himself, nearing 60.
de Gray, however, is the real star. Brash, bold and rocking a beard that could make the cast of "Duck Dynasty" reach for the Rogaine, he’s a man of such odd character and droll wit – something that pleasingly infects the rest of "The Immortalists" as well – that he could support a whole film on his own. He drops fascinating scientific and biological ideas in between swigs of a tasty brew (even in the midst of a typical talking head interview). He participates in naked picnics with his significantly older wife. His idea of a pick up line? "Justify your existence."
He’s a great character visually and intellectually, one who grows even more complex as the doc goes along. By the end, it’s uncertain if he is simply doing this because, well, why not, or if perhaps it’s to create a future and worldview similar to his own – one involving multiple girlfriends spread across the country (with his wife’s approval).
Though its brevity (especially in a festival) is welcome, "The Immortalists" could stand to go another 15 minutes or so to go deeper into the bigger ethical and philosophical questions briefly touched upon. A public debate, for instance, between Blakemore and de Gray seems to end as quickly as it begins, unfortunate since it’s a great opportunity to address those questions and add some extra dramatic heft.
Maybe it’s fitting, though, to want more time from a movie about wanting more time.
"The Immortalists": ***1/2
"The Immortalists" shows one more time at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 29 at 7:15 p.m. at the Times Cinema.
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