Human beings are born, age and eventually die. Grappling with death is at the core of many stories, both fictitious and non-fictitious. The usual rule is that anyone who seriously seeks to defeat death is being foolhardy — pitiable at best, dangerously deluded at worst. The Immortalists defies that rule, just like its protagonists wish to defy the whole paradigm of human existence. The documentary takes a step back and neither condemns nor condones the search for a “cure” for death. Not to the point of respectfully standing aside and viewing its characters’ quest as somehow symbolic of some human condition, but it takes seriously their differing points of attack.
Many science-based docs lean too heavily on procedure and exposition, to the detriment of its humanity. A few seesaw too far in the opposite direction, avoiding interesting concepts in favor of its characters. The Immortalists’ best quality is that it strikes a graceful balance between the lab work and the people. We get to know the two main characters, doctors Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews, while also getting an education in the physical mechanics of aging that feels more substantial than a simple primer.
The film follows de Grey and Andrews’s divergent approaches to “solving” the problem of human aging, as well as exploring their personal histories and philosophies. The most mind-expanding facts the doc tackles have to do with how we aren’t entirely sure why it is that our cells will only work for a finite amount of time. Andrews believes that it has to do with telomeres (“caps” at the end of chromosomes that degrade each time cells divide), while de Grey has pinpointed seven separate factors, each of which he believes must be addressed in order to halt the aging process.
There’s a good amount of information at hand, but the film manages to convey it in an easy-to-understand manner. Explanatory drawings are superimposed over the interviewees as they talk, which is a small but helpful change of pace from the usual method of running narration over infographics. More importantly, it’s able to differentiate objectively known data from the varying interpretations of said data for the audience’s benefit.
But all of that is very dry, and on its own is the stuff of a reasonably absorbing PBS special, not a piece of documentary art. The human element isn’t up to snuff in The Immortalists. Despite their unusual field of study, de Grey and Andrews are, all things considered, not terribly interesting guys. Though he sports an enormous beard, de Grey isn’t nearly as eccentric as he comes off being at first. There’s a revelation that he practices polyamory, but this comes quite late in the story and makes little impact.
Both leads have their points of sympathy — they each have elderly parents whom they’d like to save from death; Bill wishes to complete a marathon that previously nearly killed him — but those feel like perfunctory relatable tidbits doled out for the viewer’s benefit. They’re both as arrogant as one might expect scientists trying to cure death would be, but they aren’t even arrogant in entertaining ways, just mildly irritating.
The Immortalists is strangely muted for a story about men attempting to conquer death. The film is so beholden to its not-that-fun leads that it might have actually behooved the filmmakers (including directors David Albarado and Jason Sussberg) to take a more macro view of the idea. The implications of a world without death go mostly unaddressed. What about overpopulation, for instance? How deeply have these smart guys thought about these things? At any rate, the doc is reasonably diverting, but never thought-provoking.
This review was originally published on November 27, 2014.